Youth ministry in an iWorld

I had the privilege of talking to a bunch of youth leaders from the Pressy church in Queensland at YNet yesterday about how to navigate the new connected landscape of the internet.

I promised I’d make my slides easy to find. So here they are (along with the earlier version of this presentation I did for a more general audience. Sadly, Slideshare seems to kill my font choices.

The key is to find the happy medium between being Shirley and being Abed.

“This particular challenge is unique because at the heart of it is a universal lie, that is that all people who experience same sex attraction were born that way. And so, scientists, politicians, lobby groups, right down to the person who you sit next to on the bus who says oh, I’m same sex attracted and I was born this way, everybody seems to believe the lie. And what they do, it’s not just the lie, they take the lie and they turn it into a moral imperative that is that it’s not right to tell anybody not to live that way, the way they were born to live.”—Steve Morrison, Promo Video, Born This Way

bornthiswaycoverBorn This Way is a new book written by Steve Morrison, and published by Matthias Media attempting to help Christians grapple with one of the most pressing questions facing the Australian church. How to approach the issue of homosexuality. It asks how Christians should understand what science and the Bible have to say about same sex attraction.

A significant percentage of the book is good, and true. But it is fatally flawed.

How we talk about homosexuality and same sex attraction is a big deal. How we talk about sexuality for Christians and to those in the outside world is a big deal.

It’s not just a big deal in the public square — where the idea that someone would not pursue happiness and wholeness according to their natural sexual desires because of their religious belief is anathema.

It’s a big deal for real people trying to figure out how to reconcile their faith in Jesus and belief that the Gospel is identity-shaping good news, with their same sex attraction.

It’s a big deal for me personally because it’s a live issue in my family. My brother in law Mitch, my sister’s husband, is same sex attracted. He’s also in full time ministry, and involved in ministry to same sex attracted people with Liberty IncYou can read some of his story here (see question ‘what does the bible say about homosexuality?).

I love Mitch, I love my sister, I love their kids. There are other same sex attracted brothers and sisters in Christ that I love too, but none quite so close to home as my family. It matters how people talk about this stuff because it impacts real people. I posted some tips for talking about homosexuality as Christians a while back that came from a seminar I gave at a Liberty Inc event. How people talk about this issue directly impacts people I love, so you’ll have to excuse me if it seems I’ve taken anything in this review personally, because it is personal.

I’ve invited Mitch to co-write this review. These are our words. Where we need to, we’ve distinguished between Mitch’s response, and my response.

About this Review

We’re keen to be as charitable as we possibly can as readers. We didn’t want this book to fail. We need more resources to guide thoughtful discussions on this topic, and there are thoughtful parts of this book that would be useful if they weren’t surrounded by significant problems. We’re thankful that the author, Steve Morrison, wants to encourage the church to love and reach out to homosexual people, and while there is much in this book that we believe is right and true, there are problems with this book that mean it is not a resource we can recommend, and it is not a book we can simply ignore.

Neither of us know the author personally (Nathan: I became Facebook friends with Steve in order to share this review before posting it). We are sure the book is well intentioned, and that both Matthias Media, as the publisher, and Steve Morrison, the author, had every intention to handle this topic with sensitivity, we simply think the intentions were misguided.

Steve is a human. A person. And this book represents a labour of love from him, for his readers, for the church, and for the same sex attracted people who might read the book, or be engaged in conversation by people who’ve read this book. We understand that Born This Way is well intentioned, and while we’ve responded with fairly robust criticism we’ve tried to, wherever possible, make it clear that this is a result of our response to the book and its arguments, not to Steve and his intentions.

This is a topic that is almost impossible to approach without bias if you’re directly affected, or affected via someone you love being directly affected. That’s why we’ve acknowledged our own bias up front. Sometimes this approach means we rely on assumptions that we’ve drawn as readers of the book, there are no doubt times when we’ve missed nuances in Steve’s argument or misrepresent it, but we are responding as readers who have tried to read the book carefully, these misunderstandings are, of course, something we have to take some responsibility for as readers. Sometimes our tone below might seem harsh, at times this will be a result of our own sinfulness. We’d suggest there are not many people who will approach this book with the objectivity that Steve tries to write with, and assumes from his readers, and that is actually a problem with this book as it speaks to this topic.

We’ve been urged by the publisher to review the book on its own terms, not our own. And that’s fair and gracious, so in order to do this we’ve included relatively long quotes from the book when we quote it, to provide appropriate context. In Steve’s response to an earlier form of the review (published at the bottom) he mentioned that relying on quotes from the video (featuring him) produced by the publisher to promote the book, rather than the book, would potentially misrepresent the book. We feel this represents something of the shifting landscape of book publishing in the digital world. It’s probable that more people will end up seeing the promo video than watching the book, and books are (as they always have been) part of a broader conversation on a topic, promotional videos for books also contribute to this broader conversation.

We write as people for whom this issue matters, for the reasons outlined above, and because we both want to see people — heterosexual or homosexual — come to find their satisfaction and identity in Jesus. We have no doubt that this is the hope and prayer of Matthias Media and Steve Morrison, however, we have grave concerns based on our own impressions of the book and its arguments that it will be helpful to this end.

There are things to like about this book.

Born This Way doesn’t sweep the science that suggests there might be a biological component of same sex attraction out of the way, it isn’t embarrassed by the science. This is good. It asks honest and searching questions of the science, and it turns to the Bible for answers confident that the science and the Bible will walk in lock-step on the issue. This is good too. It reads the Biblical data through a Gospel lens, which is vital.

And, it invites readers to approach the topic of same sex attraction, and those who are same sex attracted, with humility.

“Let’s love and accept each other as fellow human beings. We are all different, and we all have much to learn from one another. If we can do that, we can move beyond the idea that simply holding a different opinion means someone is irrational, crazy, and driven by fear. Instead, we can relate to each other with love and respect despite our differences. We can talk, and we can listen. And we may just be able to move forward in the search for truth.” — Page 28

Which is excellent.

But.

Here are the ten reasons Born This Way is dramatically flawed, and we do not believe it’s a book you should give to those who are thinking about same sex attraction and Christianity, especially not people who are same sex attracted.

1. Born This Way  presents the Gospel in its treatment of the Bible, but is not Gospel driven

The Gospel is part of the picture in this book, but we’re convinced the Gospel is the driving force behind any true answer to how Christians think about Homosexuality. This objection has nothing to do with the order of Morrison’s argument — that he starts by considering the science — but rather the conclusions he draws from the scientific and Biblical data. His conclusions are essentially that the science suggests most people can choose not to be same sex attracted, and that every person can choose fight same sex temptation, and avoid lust or same sex sex, while the Bible tells people that lust and sex outside of marriage are sinful so people must find forgiveness for sexual sin in Jesus and then stop sinning. The emphasis is very much on sin, and forgiveness, both of which are important. But the Gospel isn’t just the rationale for transformation, it’s the key, and it’s the reason to pursue sexual transformation rather than the satisfaction of natural desires.

It’s the Gospel that makes every one of us — heterosexual or homosexual — sexually whole.

It’s only when our hearts, and relationships, are transformed by the Gospel, and by our participation in the Kingdom of God through Jesus by his death, resurrection and the provision of the Holy Spirit that any of us can think rightly about our sexuality and our identity.

It’s only the renewed mind and transformed heart that the Gospel brings that anyone can begin to sort out how much our identity is formed by what’s natural to us, and how much it comes from above.

It’s this new mind, not understanding the science, that will convince someone to submit their sexuality to Jesus. Born This Way seems to assume that just understanding the science and the Bible will change actions. But it’s Jesus.

Finding sexual wholeness is about turning to Jesus, not simply turning away from sin. It is quite probably that Morrison feels like this is the message his book conveys, and that we are misrepresenting him at this point, but his emphasis is on turning away from sin and finding forgiveness (while trying to sin no more), rather than finding satisfaction in Jesus, and living accordingly.

2. Born This Way  presents an anemic Gospel

Born This Way makes the Gospel about having our sins — especially sexual sins — forgiven. Which of course is part of the Gospel. But it’s not the whole Gospel. It’s not all the Gospel has to say about sexuality.

The Gospel is about the Lordship of Jesus over every facet of our lives. Including our sexuality.

It’s about being part of God’s Kingdom.

It’s about the promise that the reinvention of our humanity as we’re reconnected with God and transformed into the image of Christ, in a community of people who want to love each other like Jesus loved, with the promise of a share in his inheritance for eternity, is better than anything this world has to offer. Including sex with people you’re attracted to if those people are not the person you are married to. Including sex with people the same gender as you, even if you’re attracted to them.

Being part of the Kingdom of God, as a result of the Gospel, changes our approach to sex. The Gospel isn’t just about having your sexual sins forgiven, it’s a promise that Jesus and his Kingdom is more satisfying than sex, and a better place to build your identity and understand what it means to be human than sexuality.

This is why Jesus says:

“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” — Matthew 19:12

This passage was curiously absent from the book.

It’s why Paul says:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. —1 Corinthians 7:8-9

Figuring out how to deal with homosexuality, especially for the same sex attracted, is not a question of science (though the science shows us the state of human nature), it’s a question of identity. The answer to finding one’s identity anywhere other than Jesus is to see that Jesus is better. The news that Jesus is better than sex, is what makes the Gospel good news for the same sex attracted (and people who are opposite sex attracted).

Our sexuality is a small illustration of the perfect and whole intimacy we’re made to enjoy as part of God’s kingdom in a marriage-like relationship to Jesus himself. Heterosexuality is not the ideal, it’s good, but it’s the bridge to what we’re ultimately made for.

3. By speaking as though all gay people are represented by a “gay lobby” hostile to Christianity, Born This Way  treats gay people as the enemy or the “other”

This book is combative. It feels like a book calling people to gird up their loins in the face of this conflict. It feels like a guide to being the Church against the world. Even in its attempts to be winsome, this book is like the Queensberry Rules for fighting against the pervasive influence of the “gay lobby” and stopping more people becoming gay.

The book tries to redefine common terms in the discussion around homosexuality to make them more objective or technical. It’s an interesting approach. We believe it fails for a number of reasons which will hopefully become apparent below. The big issue is that loving people often requires listening to and understanding them, and finding points of engagement within their own framework, not simply telling them that their chosen terms are all unhelpful and trying to wrest the control of the discussion out of their hands. The move also seems to trample over the work that groups actively engaged in ministry to people who identify as homosexual or experience same sex attraction have done in doing exactly this sort of loving engagement.

The problem with this combative approach – whether its treating the “gay lobby” as an enemy to be destroyed, or simply emphasising the distance between gay people and normal people – the sort of people you’d play cricket then talk to about “the gay issue” (page 15)  – is that it makes gay people seem less human than “normal” straight people. The book talks about those homosexuals as if they’re an entirely different category of person.

Mitch: At this point every person living with same sex attraction is ‘they.’ We’re ‘those people.’ Most gay people like to be associated with the gay lobby about as much as most Christians like to be associated with political Christian lobbying.

Gay people are not the enemy of Christianity. They are not other. They are our neighbours. Every one of us is broken by sin, biologically broken. This brokenness extends to our sexuality, even if our sexuality is “by the book” in a heterosexual marriage, but without transformed hearts, our sexuality is the expression of hearts that the Bible diagnoses as broken and selfish. Straight sex is closer to the way we were created to experience sex, but it doesn’t make anybody any closer to God.

Being attracted to someone of the same sex does not make another person the enemy. If all homosexual people were aggressively anti-Christian then this approach might have merit. But until the guy across the street from me stops making snide comments about the gay couple two doors down, gay people are in a minority that makes them vulnerable and we (as the book acknowledges) need to love homosexuals. I think we do this because they’re our neighbours, not because we’re told to love our enemies.

Morrison appears to position the gay lobby, and the society that forms around its agenda, as our enemies who are engaged in a battle for our hearts, minds, and private parts —his fear seems to be that by normalising homosexuality they will create more homosexuals (or at least more homosexual sex). It may well be the case that the gay lobby, like any group of people who want people to find their identity in anything but Jesus (the Bible calls this idolatry) is opposed to God. But they are no more opposed to God than myriad other idolatrous voices in our society that we don’t treat as enemies or “other” in this way. We love them as our neighbours and hold out the good news of the Gospel to them, while pointing out the dangers of idolatry. This book goes further. It goes to war with idols, an approach more at home with Israel in the Old Testament (within the Promised Land) than with the Church in the New Testament. When Paul encounters a city full of idols, he uses these idols to show that idolatry is hollow, especially in comparison to the living God (Acts 17).

The book expects these enemies, or others — and those tempted by their lies — to be conquered as they’re lovingly presented the objective facts of science and the Bible, and to quit homosexuality like a smoker quits smoking. These pieces of objective data are important, but they aren’t what will ultimately help win someone to Jesus.

All the implications Morrison draws in the following quotes from Born This Way are true, but they’re true whether you approach gay people (and those passionate enough to lobby on gay issues) as neighbours, not enemies.

 

“Jesus tells his followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:43-44) Jesus is very clear on our response to those with whom we disagree. Sometimes a disagreement can be so strong that we are even inclined to call the other person our ‘enemy.’ But no matter what views you hold, other people are to be treated with love and respect. This means that the past decision to classify homosexual attraction as a psychological disorder was not acceptable. Future research will no doubt help us understand the psychological factors involved, but at present there is no evidence of homosexuality being related to any kind of disorder, and the Bible never places homosexuality in that category. Prejudice against those who have homosexual attractions is out—as are persecution, discrimination, mistreatment and hatred. It should go without saying, but any form of physical violence is also completely unacceptable.” — Page 25

 

“…because God welcomes the homosexual, we welcome them too. Our churches are full of people who have all kinds of sinful histories—in fact, there is no one in our churches whose history isn’t littered with sin, our churches are full of people who are tempted by the same sex, and so we welcome them into our congregations just as we welcome those who struggle with slander, pornography, greed, and any other sin. When our churches welcome visitors who struggle with sin—even practising homosexuals—that doesn’t mean we are condoning their sin. We are offering grace, mercy, truth, forgiveness and community, in the same way that we offer those gifts of the gospel to all human beings…What we must not do is say (either, explicitly or implicitly) that a person who struggles with homosexuality is not welcome in our church until they get their Iife sorted out. In the same way that you came to God with sin and struggles, so does everyone else.” — Page 124

Mitch: If you read this as a homosexual person investigating Christianity, where it talks about “the homosexual,” you’d feel like the subject of a narrated National Geographic documentary.

4. Born This Way  is “not really a pastoral book” — which is irresponsible

It’s not just gay people outside the church who cop bullets from this book’s combative approach. There’s friendly fire too. It hurts people in our churches who are same sex attracted (for reasons discussed below).

This pain, in part, is caused by the book’s bloody-minded approach to this issue. As though the science and the Bible can ever be talked about in a way that is disconnected from real people and their experience. In the book’s online promo video Morrison says:

“The book is not really a pastoral book, I haven’t principally written it for people struggling with same sex attraction, I do deal with it a bit and I know they’ll be reading the book, but really what I’ve written for is for people to understand the Bible in a world made by God, but in a world in rebellion to God.” —Steve Morrison, Promo Video, Born This Way

This is one of the biggest failings in the book. It’s ignorant to think that it’s ok to write a book about an issue that has such a profound impact on people, including mental health impacts — Christian or not —without being pastoral. It’s a mistake to think that this debate, about something as subjective as a person’s experience of sexuality and where it fits in their identity, can be solved with objective, impersonal, truth.

If this issue is a big deal for real people you’d expect Christian people who want to deal lovingly with this issue to do more than just treat it with dispassionate objectivity. The decision not to write in a predominantly pastoral voice is a vexing one, especially given the marginalisation Same Sex Attracted people feel both in society and the church. And that, in my mind, is one of the biggest failings of this book. It tries to dispassionately deal with this issue without an eye on the real people affected and the harm writing this way might cause.

This, frankly, seems unloving. Sure, it’s loving to deal in facts and to present truth, but listening and understanding is also loving, and I’m just not sure this book is an exercise in demonstrating a commitment to listening to those who are same sex attracted so much as telling them how life really is.

I don’t know that it’s possible to write a Christian book that attempts to teach Christians how to navigate a complex issue dealing with sin, brokenness, and our humanity, that is not pastoral.

This decision to approach the book this way actually creates most of the subsequent problems in this list. It’s not just the content that lacks a pastoral approach. The publisher says Steve was in contact with people from ministries to same sex attracted people, including Liberty Inc, about the book. However, to our knowledge, nobody currently involved with Liberty, who are probably the leading evangelical group counselling Same Sex Attracted Christians, was aware this book was being written or released (Matthias Media did contact Liberty’s pastoral worker in Sydney).

5. Born This Way  compares same sex attraction to the biological urge to smoke, and same sex sex as the equivalent to smoking

This is where the book dies. The author makes the unhelpful comparison between homosexuality and smoking (remember when the ACL made a comparison between the health impacts of smoking and the homosexual lifestyle). This comparison is loaded, it is fraught with baggage, and it is completely foreign to the experience of those living with same sex attraction. This is where it becomes exceptionally clear that this is not a pastoral book, and it’s where the book shifts to becoming an overtly unhelpful book for same sex attracted people.

“Take smoking as an example. Since smoking a cigarette is not condemned in the Bible, we cannot condemn it as being sinful—provided it’s legal, and not against your conscience. It may be unwise—even very unwise—but the action is not sinful in and of itself. Of course, therein lies a crucial difference between homosexual activity and smoking—one is explicitly prohibited by God’s word, and the other is not. But they are similar in one important way: societal expectations and pressures have changed over time (but in opposite directions).

In different parts of the world and at different times, people have faced varying temptations to smoke… When I was growing up in the 1980s, smoking was far more culturally acceptable than it is now. There were TV ads for smoking, and it was considered trendy and tough for most kids to smoke. So many young people took up smoking, to varying degrees. But if you are born in Australia today it is much less likely that you will face a strong temptation to smoke. From kindergarten onwards, impassioned health campaigners will teach you about the dangers of smoking. In 21st-century Australia, smoking has become socially far less acceptable than in years gone by.

Now take two people who have quite different genetic predispositions to want to smoke. If both were in Holland in the 1940s, they may well both have been smokers. If both grew up with me (lucky them) there is a good chance that both would have tried smoking, even if only one or two cigarettes… But if both people were growing up In Australia today, there is a strong probability that neither of them would ever smoke. The two people’s desires might still be very different from one another, but their decisions and actions would be shaped by their life situations. So while the number of people being born with a genetic tendency towards smoking shouldn’t change, proportionally, we would expect the number of people smoking over time to vary, depending on things like our society’s attitude to smoking, and the growing evidence about the harmful effects of cigarettes.

The statistics tell us exactly that. For example, in Australia in 1945, 72% of men and 26% of women smoked regularly. In 1980, 41% of men and 30% of women smoked regularly. And by 2010, that number had dropped to 22% of men and 18% of women.

So we should expect a similar type of thing to happen with homosexual activity—but in the opposite direction. The proportion of people genetically predisposed to SST should stay the same, but the actual number of people tempted to engage in (and actually engaging in) homosexual behaviour will vary. For this reason. It is very helpful to view SST not as something restricted to a finite proportion of the population, but rather as a potential temptation that all Christians should understand. —Born This Way, Pages 101-103

The argument here is that if our society buys the view of homosexual sex (not relationships, or identity) presented by the nefarious gay lobby, then more people will have gay sex. It seems to wrongly assume:

  1. That belonging to the smoking community and the gay community are qualitatively similar.
  2. That nobody experiences exclusively homosexual attraction, or at least we aren’t talking about those people any more, just people who are on the spectrum in such a way that this sort of experimenting becomes likely (and spreads further along the sliding scale of sexuality).
  3. That there are statistics showing that gay sex, or the number of people identifying as homosexual is on the increase (and that this is not simply a normalisation of the statistics as a result of reduced social stigma, where people who once might have stayed in the closet are coming out).
  4. That it’s a simple, and contagious, temptation that’s a potential temptation for all Christians.
  5. That gay people don’t smoke, so can’t recognise the difference between these two urges or temptations as they read this argument.

These false assumptions lead to false (and harmful) conclusions.

6. The smoking analogy is bad by itself, but it prevents the book from dealing with why Jesus is better than sex.

Mitch: Most Christians who deal with same sex attraction see themselves as primarily Christian, and approach their sexual orientation accordingly. But, while they make this sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel they look at their friends who get to be Christian, straight, heterosexual, fathers, husbands and boyfriends. They get all those other things that give them a clear role and place in their church and community. These are things that fill out belonging and identity. Sure, they’re not primary, but they go a long way.

Yet, SSA Christians can’t have any of those, nor any of their own version of those. In fact this book tries to even pronounce a more correct way for SSA people to label themselves. We’re allowed to be Same Sex Tempted now, but not same sex attracted. I think we’d almost prefer Paul’s ‘homosexual offenders.’

The truth is there will be a number of people who want to settle with or sleep with someone of the same-sex until they die. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but it’s over realised eschatology to pretend it’s not the case. The real issue here isn’t the science, it’s relationship. SSA men and women want to desire people and be desired. They want rich, intimate, mutual love. They want to be proud of it. They want to feel free in it. They want it to last. Don’t you?

They want what the Trinity has. They want what the Gospel opens the door to. This is where the Gospel is good news for Same Sex Attracted people – it redefines natural longings, and redirects them to their created purpose. It offers genuine satisfaction and wholeness.

There’s just not enough of this in Born this Way, and it makes the tone of the book seem uncaring and disconnected.

7. Born This Way  is a product of crippling unexamined ‘privilege’

Nathan: I’m massively opposed to the way the spectre, or rhetorical trump card, of “privilege,” has been used recently to silence voices in conversations dealing with sensitive issues and vulnerable minorities. People who aren’t directly affected by sensitive issues have contributions to make on these issues — so, for example men legitimately have much to say about the injustices identified by feminism, and need to speak into those issues. Jesus was single and spoke about sex. You don’t have to experience something first hand to have a contribution to make. But there is a gap that needs bridging from author to reader when the author isn’t standing beside the reader in their shoes.

As much as I hate the “privilege card,” I feel, reluctantly, that this book never really gets over the problem of Morrison’s apparent unacknowledged privilege. He is presented in the book as a heterosexual, married, man. It may be that he is same sex attracted as well, and choses not to acknowledge it because it would undermine the book’s objectivity (which seems very important to its argument), if this is the case it is one way the book is crippled by its objective scope. But we are working on the assumption that Morrison, because he never says otherwise, is not same sex attracted.

Morrison writes from a position where he presents himself as someone objectively tackling this issue by objectively dealing with the two important streams of revelation and authority on this issue – the Bible, and science. But this position of authority isn’t the only privilege involved. He writes as a heterosexual man who is a church leader. He doesn’t have to make drastic changes to his own life, his behaviour, or his identity, as a result of his findings. He’s essentially telling people they need to become more like him (even if he doesn’t say it this way), without really being able to understand, first hand, where they are being asked to come from.

Heterosexual people who are in positions of influence —leadership positions — in our churches have an incredible responsibility to be sensitive to the people in our care who are vulnerable because of their sexuality. In church communities where heterosexuality is often held out to be the normal, pure, sexuality, our heterosexual leaders need to be pretty careful not to speak from positions that don’t take this sort of privilege for granted.

It’s dangerous to talk as though a heterosexual marriage is the path to sexual wholeness, not the Gospel, or as though heterosexual sex, because it reflects God’s good creation in Genesis 1-2, is not broken by the events of Genesis 3.

Every person’s natural approach to sex— the approach to sex produced by our sinful nature— needs to be redeemed by Jesus.

This conversation needs heterosexual leaders speaking up on behalf of the marginalised in our churches, but we also need to listen to the experience and wisdom of our brothers and sisters who are living out faithful lives as same sex attracted Christians.

Morrison tries to do this by regularly including quotes from prominent Christians who are same sex attracted, but there are certain elements of his approach that do not seem to mesh with the lived experience of same sex attracted people, at least not the same sex attracted people I know. This is the danger that comes from writing from a position where you don’t have first hand experience of what you’re talking about, and it’s the danger of pursuing pure objectivity on a topic that is incredibly subjective for people in a way that can not be truly understood by someone who lives that experience as a first hand reality.

The responsibility for those of us who realise we’re entering a discussion from a position of privilege is humility, realising that there’s a subjective realm of information that we just don’t have access to, and that others do, and these others have something to say about how conversations like this should take place.

One application of this sort of humility is to not come in like a rude or awkward dinner guest, who tries to re-arrange the furniture. It’s not our place to enter this discussion and try to redefine terms that have been carefully chosen to describe the reality of life as a same sex attracted person. The worst of these is discussed at point 9.

8. Born This Way  tries to find objective solutions to a subjective subject.

This means it doesn’t really listen to same sex attracted people. Morrison’s unexamined privilege and his assumption that a loving tone, couple with the ‘objective’ data and some cherry-picked anecdotes can bridge the gap between his experience and the experience of others, means this book is disconnected from the real world of people for whom same sex attraction is a reality.

Morrison never acknowledges that for many same sex attracted people, even if the data suggests a biological link is only part of the picture, their experience of their sexual attraction is that it is something natural, something that they are born with, something that they do not choose. His simplistic treatment of the data is essentially to argue that since biology is only a small part of the picture the rest of somebody’s sexual orientation is the product of choice. We aren’t disagreeing with Morrison that lust and sexual activity are the products of individual choice. They are. To suggest otherwise would be to insist on a weird sort of slavery to nature, but it’s equally problematic to try to minimise the impact nature has on attraction and temptation, especially to suggest the biological influence on attraction is similar to the temptation to smoke or watch television.

Morrison’s treatment of attraction is so focused on nature that it ignores science around nurture. Even if a homosexual orientation is the product of both biology and environment, it is typically established so early for someone, or by circumstances beyond their control, that it’s too complicated to simply call it a choice. That some people choose homosexuality (as supported by anecdotal evidence) does not mean this is true for all people. The science cannot be used to argue that the desire to engage in same sex sex is similar to the biological urge to smoke or watch television.

Morrison has this binary approach to the born this way question such that the science only really matters if someone is 100% genetically born same sex attracted (and then it only really matters if the person is 100% same sex attracted and not bi-sexual.

“So is homosexuality biologically determined at birth? To date, science’s best answer is that someone who experiences SSA may well have some biological or hereditary factors that play a role in causing this attraction—but to a much smaller extent than is often claimed. While it is widely believed that sexual orientation is genetically determined—in the same way as skin colour, bone structure and eye colour—the best scientific evidence tells us that SSA is in a very different category from those types of hereditary characteristics. Genetic factors like skin colour and eye colour are 100% determined from birth. But there are many psychological or behavioural traits that are only partly determined by genetics. In those kinds of cases, a wide range of other factors will come into play to influence how a person ultimately lives or behaves. For example. one study has shown that a person has an average heritability estimate of 45% to have a predisposed inclination to want to watch television.At the most, male SSA is likely to be hereditary at a rate of 30-50%—very similar to the hereditary desire to watch television…we must understand the genetic, hereditary component of SSA very differently from the way we view an unchangeable characteristic such as skin colour. The hereditary component of SSA is more like a person’s hereditary desire to smoke, eat too much, watch certain amounts of TV, tend towards certain political views, or have a desire to attend church” —Pages 51-52

 

Nobody I know feels like TV watching, smoking, or eating, is the fundamental basis for their identity. But many people define themselves by their sexual orientation. This is one of our society’s biggest forms of idolatry — we weren’t created to find our identity or humanity in sex, but in our relationship with God. Disconnecting sexuality from identity is a potential way forward in the way Christians talk about homosexuality that doesn’t throw pastoral hand grenades at the same sex attracted.

9. This failure to listen is most evident when it tries to move the conversation from attraction to temptation

“It’s important that we distinguish carefully between three words relating to homosexuality: ‘action’. ‘lust and ‘attraction’. A homosexual action is when a person engages in sexual activity with someone of the same gender. Homosexual lust is when someone has fantasies and passions that express themselves in imagining homosexual situations. The third category is attraction. This is different from lust, and we must continue to distinguish between attraction and lust because of the question of choice.”— Born This Way, Page 35

 

But sometimes our desires or attractions draw us towards things that are wrong in themselves. Same-sex attraction is like this. It’s a disordered desire or attraction towards something that is wrong in itself, and so it should always be resisted. In this sense, it’s helpful to view a same-sex attraction as a temptation, as something that needs to be resisted lest it lead to sin. There are a number of advantages to replacing SSA with SST. The first advantage to using the language of ‘temptation’ is that it allows us to clearly say that acting on the attraction is sinful. It removes the ambiguity of ‘attraction’ or ‘gay’, and places the idea of ‘attraction’ in the category of things that a Christian needs to resist. Another advantage in calling the phenomenon ‘temptation’ is that the Christian can assert—even more strongly and confidently than the scientist, in some ways—that a person who experiences attraction to the same sex is, indeed, born with SST. The Christian doctrine of original sin says that every human being is born with “a motivationally twisted heart ” — Born This Way, Page 99

 

Same sex attracted people who follow Jesus aren’t called to stop finding people of the opposite sex attractive; to lobotomise that part of their brain. Same sex attracted people are called to find their identity in Jesus and so not to turn attraction into lust, or attraction and lust into action.

Temptation is how the gap between attraction and lust, and between attraction and lust and action, is bridged.

Attraction isn’t the same as temptation and by insisting that it is, and that it should be fought, Born This Way robs same sex attracted people of a part of their humanity in a way that we don’t do this to heterosexual people.

Have you ever heard a heterosexual Christian be told to not be attracted to someone of the opposite sex (as opposed to not lusting after them)?

Mitch: This is the single most offensive part of the argument, particularly to those who find themselves exclusively and continually attracted to the same-sex. They have all the identity and relational tools afforded to straight people taken from them. Morrison doesn’t say anything about what the Gospel does to our heterosexual attraction, except to affirm it as approved by God, so those who are opposite sex attracted are allowed to keep saying they find people attractive, and admit their attraction to people (without being told this is necessarily broken opposite sex temptation). The heterosexual person is just wired this way, and allowed to live according to their biological wiring (as though it’s untainted by sin). But the same sex attracted have to deny they experience this attraction in any form? I’m probably becoming more convinced by someone like Wes Hill who just says call yourself gay but qualify it as a witness to the gospel, so he says he’s a celibate gay Christian.

10. Because Morrison doesn’t speak from the experiential reality of same sex attraction, Born This Way  doesn’t speak of sexual attraction in a way that speaks to the experience of the same sex attracted.

Born This Way simplifies the sexuality spectrum, it treats sexual attraction like a switch, and seems to insist that people who are bi-sexual aren’t really gay and can just flick this switch.

“Science is telling us that the vast majority of people who experience attraction to the same sex also experience some level of attraction to the opposite sex. That is, the vast majority of people who identify themselves as ‘gay’ are actually bisexual. So we find the word ‘gay’ fairly useless, not to mention potentially offensive… There are simply too many categories. too many nuances, being covered by the one word. Let’s take an extreme example and an extreme analogy: how do we compare a person in an active, open, long-term cohabitating homosexual relationship to another person who is in a heterosexual marriage but who once felt a slight attraction to someone of the same sex? Do we call them both ‘gay’?”… The word ‘gay’ is used broadly to summarize any aspect of same-sex attraction, lust or action. But in a conversation where objectivity and accuracy are vital, we need to be more accurate about which aspect of the phenomenon we are talking about. People are free to identify themselves as ‘gay’ and then explain what they mean by that term, but the word is too ambiguous to be of use technically or as a label.” —Born This Way, Page 33-34

“But perhaps the biggest problem with the binary assumption that a person is born either gay or straight is bisexuality.”— Born This Way, Page 54

Morrison treats bi-sexuality as a big deal for his argument. It’s really not. I do not think the word means what he thinks it means. This is only the “biggest problem” and a “binary assumption” because Morrison has earlier redefined “gay” to not be a label that can “technically” describe the identity of a bi-sexual person.

Once he ‘establishes’ this conclusion, and the related conclusion that only one in four gay men, or one in 16 lesbian women, or about 1% of the male population are homosexual rather than bi-sexual (page 55), he reaches an interesting conclusion from this data:

“One helpful way of understanding sexual attraction is to think of it as a spectrum upon which every person appears, and when it comes to same-sex attraction, the genetic influence upon a person’s position on that spectrum is minor, at best. Put simply, if we use the terminology in the way in which it is normally used, a person is not born gay.”— Born This Way, Page 56

But what about the one percent of people who don’t experience a broad part of the sexuality spectrum? What about the one in four gay men who identify as 100% same sex attracted? Who are not, even according to his data, bi-sexual? How does this conclusion not simply further marginalise the already marginalised?

Conclusion: This is not the book the church wants, or needs, about homosexuality

While there is much to like in this book, and Morrison has set out to provide a resource that will benefit Christians confronted with a world that is increasingly hostile to Christianity and the Biblical view of sex, the problems with this book, problems that will be immediately apparent to those who experience same sex attraction and anybody who understands what it is that people who identify as homosexual are seeking through their relationships, means it fails as a resource.

It is not a book we can recommend. It’s not a book that people who minister to Christians trying to figure out the implications their sexuality has for their faith can recommend.

Nathan: I’ve written about another way Christians can approach what Morrison calls the “universal lie” of “born this way” elsewhere. It requires acknowledging that we’re all born this way, all born with a sexuality that deviates from the sort of relationships God created us to enjoy. It requires acknowledging that we’re all born desiring the same love as one another, however that manifests. And it requires us to acknowledge that we are reborn, and our understanding of love transformed, through the death and resurrection of Jesus that frees us from slavery to our natural, broken, humanity.

Mitch: If people want to read just one book on this issue, and a book that pitches at about this level that is helpful then I would recommend Is God anti-gay? by Sam Allberry.

Steve’s Response

“Thanks for taking the time to read the book and to write giving me the chance to respond. Thanks for pointing out when you’re quoting a promotional video interview that I did for the book and when you’re quoting the book itself. The book was thousands of hours of work by myself and others around the world. Nearly every sentence was re-written in some form to tighten the nuance of the book. Both I and the publisher knew this book needed extra care because of the criticism it would face so we not only spent an extra year working on it but it’s one of the reasons we kept it short. That said, of course the book will be imperfect and unsatisfying to some, and could always be done differently or improved. So please be careful when critiquing the book because of the video interview. When I saw the interview (I didn’t get a chance to edit it) I did wish that I’d phrased things more carefully. In fact, I’m not sure that it’s really fair to use the video as a basis to critique the book give that I’m not answering or clarifying anything in the book. I would prefer you critique the book as a standalone resource. As we work together in our various situations as servants for God’s Kingdom and the glory of Christ your critique on the book is most welcome.”

This term at church we’re tackling nine big issues. Issues we think are something like belief blockers for our friends and neighbours. Issues where the Church gets things wrong, but issues that the good news of Jesus transforms (where we, the Church, need to keep transforming). You can read more about the series and the title here. We’ve put together a massive resource for people to tackle these issues in the form of our Growth Group booklets — if you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been posting much here, this is why. These booklets are available online as a PDF, and there’ll be extended versions of each topic available online in coming weeks.

The topics we’re tackling (starting this Sunday) are:

  1. Judging Others
  2. Gay Marriage
  3. Abortion & Euthanasia
  4. Abuse
  5. Feminism
  6. Asylum Seekers
  7. Climate Change
  8. Human Trafficking
  9. Greed

If you’re in Brisbane and you’re suspicious about the Church, or any of these issues stop you investigating Jesus, I’d love to invite you to join us at church in South Bank, at the Queensland Theatre Company (Montague Road). We have services at 10:30am and 5pm. If you come in the evening we can grab a beer (or wine) in the bar afterwards and have a chat.

I, Crucifix

Icrucifix

I’ve loved Leonard E. Read’s I, Pencil since the first time I read it. I’ve been struck recently that the crucifixion of Jesus was much more complicated to orchestrate than a simple pencil. These words from Peter, in Acts, have been bouncing around in my head (along with John calling Jesus the “lamb slain before the creation of the world” in Revelation.

“This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” — Acts 2:23

Some of the below either borrows, or quotes, I, Pencil. Which you should read for this to make as much sense as possible (though it should work without that). 


I am the crucifix. Those two wooden planks, fixed together in the shape of the letter t, a symbol familiar to boys and girls and adults throughout the world. A symbol of hope. Affixed to hospitals, churches, and flags. Carried into battle, marking the resting place of the fallen. I am the world most recognised, most powerful, most confused, brand.

I am simultaneously wondrous, and cursed, celebrated and condemned, wisdom and foolishness, power and weakness, honour and humiliation, love and loathing, an instrument of justice and of mercy. I am both physical, and symbolic. I was made to bring darkness and death, but now represent light and life. I do these things, and more. I am taken up in service of many causes, and cause many acts of service.

I am where the triune God, who created the world wrote his signature on the earth, in blood. I am the canvas for a divine masterpiece where His image was held up, writ large, for all to see.

I am the scene of the culmination of his carefully orchestrated plans for his world.

I am so significant that the books written about me could fill a library, and the pieces of me held in churches around the world as relics could fill a ship. Yet nobody knows what tree became me.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story has transformed the history of the world. And yet, I am a mystery, more than a pencil, a sunset, a flash of lightning, or even the cosmos itself. Sadly, I am taken for granted, as if I were a mere incident, and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For the wise G.K Chesterton observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

I, Crucifix, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile, or an airplane, or a mechanical dishwasher, or even a pencil, because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when we see that Rome once crucified 6,000 slaves at once, hung on crosses just like me, planted on the Via Appia.

Ponder me. A stauros. A cross. Consider my stipes and patibulum. The post and bar. Two planks of simple timber. Fixed together. What do you see? Not much that meets the eye. A few metres of hardwood. Splintered and bloody. Stipes implanted in the ground. Reused for victim upon victim. Some ropes. Some pegs and nails. I am physical, and yet symbolic. I have been emblematic for various causes through history, from warriors to medics, from haters to lovers. As an instrument of death in the hands of the Roman Empire I evoked horror, and humiliation, the very people who employ me most are terrified of my power — the orator Cicero insisted Roman citizens should not be confronted with the barbarity of even my name.

Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of my background.

My family tree may seem, simply and literally, to begin with a tree; a cedar, an olive, or a fig tree, a tree of unknown species, grown somewhere around Jerusalem. Perhaps even the mystical dogwood — though unlikely. I grew from seed, sprouted, shot upwards, branched out, before being felled by an axe and stipped of branch and bark, turned to timber. My construction might seem simple. Two logs held together, and my victim affixed, by spike and rope. You may wish to contemplate the axes, rope, horses and carts, and countless other tools used in harvesting and carting logs to Golgotha and the barracks. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of iron and its smithing into axe heads and blades, the growing of nile grass and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong papyrus rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess tents, the slaves and soldiers overseeing the work, the cookery and the raising of all the foods to feed these mouths. Why, untold numbers of persons had a hand in every cup of wine the soldiers drink, and every piece of armour they wear! Timber was scarce in Jerusalem so my upright pole, my stipes, remained rooted, planted, at the place of the skull, while my victims bore the patibulum from their trial to their deathly destiny.

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in creating me, not simply my physical reality, but my meaning.

My origins may seem arboreal, and, indeed, corporeal, and yet, it is the ethereal, symbolic sense of my significance that is where my family tree truly begins. Erected, as I was, in Jerusalem, I carry the stench of a curse for the Hebrew, and the aroma of abasement for the Roman. These odours were cultivated by years of tradition and practice. My ancestors were creations of Darius I of Persia, and employed by Alexander the Great. The Romans perfected my use and made me the most despised symbol in all the world — 6,000 slaves, the army of Spartacus, were once nailed to my predecessors and dotted liberally, one every 33 metres, along the Appian Way, a bloody road map to Roman supremacy. Dionysius of Halicarnassus in book VII of his Roman Antiquities from 7 BC, described the path an individual would take on his journey to death on the wooden arms of my forefathers…

“A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him, and that he should go ahead of the procession which the Romans were at that time conducting in honour of the god. The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a piece of wood which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips. The culprit, overcome by such cruelty, not only uttered ill-omened cries, forced from him by the pain, but also made indecent movements under the blows.”

Observe my function, and my meaning. I am a well-honed instrument of humiliation and torture, the end of a torturous road for the accursed. Those designated as less than nothing in the eyes of the world. I am an instrument of death, and a symbol of power.

“Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect.”—Quintilian, Declamation 274, The Tyrant Struck By Lightning.

For the Jews, I am anathema. Moses proclaimed that one hung, executed, upon a tree, a tree like me, was accursed by the living God. By the time Rome occupied Israel, death on a tree was a special punishment for traitors — those who sold Israel out to foreign powers, the Temple Scroll discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, says:

“If a man slanders his people and delivers his people to a foreign nation and does evil to his people, you shall hang him on a tree and he shall die. On the testimony of two witnesses and on the testimony of three witnesses he shall be put to death and they shall hang him on the tree. If a man is guilty of a capital crime and flees to other nations, and curses his people, the children of Israel, you shall hang him also on the tree, and he shall die. But his body shall not stay overnight on the tree. Indeed you shall bury him on the same day.” —11QT Temple Scroll LXIV

My history, my family tree, as it were, the origin story behind my significance began even earlier than the practice of crucifixion.

It was no accident that my symbolic was turned upside down, that the Cross became a symbol of glory, and hope, of life, rather than death. It was part of a plan.

A plan that began with two other trees — a tree that brought life, and a tree that brought death. God’s plan to destroy evil, and his promise to crush the Serpent. Satan. A promise centred on the “lamb slain before the creation of the world”— the Lamb, the Son, whose hands flung stars into space and hold heavens and earth together.A plan that would see those hands skewered with odious spikes, on a cursed tree. His feet pierced, his side lanced.

The events that took place, painted in blood on my splintered canvas, were planned from the very beginning, even from before the creation of the world. It was no accident that the divine son of God, the Son of Man, found his arms affixed to mine, it was no accident that those looking on at these events hurled insults — they could do no less. It was no accident that the child of promise arrived at a time in history when I stood tall as a symbol of human power. The symbol that best represented the might of the god-kings of Rome, and their superiority over any who claimed to oppose their right to rule. It was no accident that Jesus was tried as a traitor by both Jews and Romans, and sentenced to an exemplary, cursed death. For many before him, I was a final resting place, corpses were left to rot on my cruel axis. But not for this one. And from this moment on, the fabric of the world was torn asunder, this rending of the heavens, itself, symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain, with this shattering of what was, and re-creation of what is, my significance was inverted. The curse reversed.

Does anyone wish to challenge the assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Indeed, every human hand that has been and will be — hands raised in rebellion against God — play a part in holding the divine Son’s hands to my boards, to holding me together at the centre of history. Every life gives significance to my promise of judgment or mercy. Judgment for the death of the Son, or mercy bought by the blood spilled into the grains of my beams, and on to the earth beneath.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the Romans who appointed me to my task, nor the Jewish crowd who looked on, not the governor, the timber workers, the soldiers, the quartermaster, the slave, the high priest, the Pharisees or teachers of the law, nor even those hung on my contemporaries on Golgotha, know how I came to be, nor wanted me, or wanted to understand my significance. Certainly I do not occupy the same place in their life, or those lives that came after me, that I do in space and time, or in God’s plans. The motivation of these people is other than me.

Perhaps it is something like this; when people are at last confronted with my significance and place in the plans of the God who orchestrated space and time such that his own shoulders rested on my wood, they are left wanting my significance to be their significance, their motivation, perhaps, at this point shifts, so I am the symbol they take up in order to live and know life.

The master-mind at the heart of my story, my creation, is astounding. The strings of history pulled, twisted, laid out and brought together in my being, and doing, are the product of an invisible hand at work. Not the work of an apprentice, but a virtuoso.

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable! If this is true of any tree — how much more of this tree. The tree at the centre of the universe?

I, Crucifix, am a complex combination of miracles: wood, rope, metal and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies and co-ordination of human history, superstition, culture, and power structures — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolise, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that I sit at the heart of divine creativity, that I am the backdrop for the divine drama writ large in history, authored and orchestrated from the beginning of life in this world, then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: faith in God. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

If I, Crucifix, were the only item that could offer testimony to what God accomplishes by divine creative expression, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Sunrise, sunset, the cosmos itself and its beauty is a testimony. The best of our humanity — love, the creation of relationships, life, art, and complex systems that enhance these things. Our co-creativity, our ability to write and appreciate stories, to bring threads together, woven into rich tapestries. The production line for apparently simple devices, like the pencil. The creation of supply chains. Human ingenuity and problem solving as a reflection of the divine nature.

Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard—halfway around the world—for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Let the event at the centre of the world shape life in it. Take up your cross and follow the one whose hands were nailed to my arms. Merely organise society— starting with your own life— to act in harmony with this lesson. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Crucifix, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

One of the things about blogging is you can go back and find what a past version of you thought and wrote, and be a bit horrified. I think it’s a thing I like, but often I’m prepared to let past me slide, or to excuse past me as a bit silly and immature. But sometimes I read past me, and I’m just really sorry that I was a total jerk. Future me will probably also think this about present me.

Next term our church is working through a series called “What the Church Gets Wrong about X, But Jesus Makes Right,” one of the Xs is the Environment. I know Christians get the environment wrong, because I know I did.

In fact, this is one thing that stops me arguing with straw men. I’m often, if not always, arguing with a past, or alternative, version of myself. A version of me that has been, or definitely could be, but for God’s grace, the smart people who teach me things, and a dose of experience. Writing stuff down and thinking about it is certainly helpful.

Anyway. I got the environment totally wrong back in 2009. Not once, not twice, but three times. My friend Amy called me out on the first one, she mustered up some thoughts from her pastor, I was arrogant and dismissive in my approach to his wisdom. And I was arrogant and pretty stupid in a later response. It might not have taken me six years to realise this, but it has taken until now, as I went back to find what past-me thought, for me to realise just how wrong and abrassive I was, and to think that the record probably needs to be set straight.

The problem with the post I’ve linked to where I was arrogant and stupid is that some of what I said is true, but it’s incredibly simplistic and I buy into a heap of false dichotomies — like the idea that you can preach the Gospel to your neighbours without loving them (and that you can claim to be loving without caring for the world that people live in). I said:

“If Jesus death is the focal point of God’s love – and indeed the focal point of God’s word – then should it not be our focal point? Rather than distractions like the environment. There are plenty of people worried about the environment and not enough worried about evangelism as far as I’m concerned. And while some claim care for the environment does not mutually exclude care for people – but nor is it the purpose of existence – and in fact it is a distraction.”

It was thinking like this that led another dear friend to say that I have an “anemic doctrine of creation,” I got a little defensive then. My problem, I think, isn’t so much that I want to argue for the supremacy of the Gospel in the Christian life, but in the idea that how we interact with the environment isn’t part of our proclamation of the Gospel. I argued for a pretty disembodied approach to evangelism. And this was wrong.

I also try to split God’s love for the people he redeems from his love for the world he redeems — while it’s true that God definitely loves his people, and his aim is to gather them, it’s to gather them to live in the world that he loves, and that he will dwell in. God shows his commitment to dwelling with his people in his world-as-temple in a way that doesn’t really set up people and creation in a weird hierarchy, but sees his creation — humanity and world — living in harmony with him.

So, if you were reading back then, or you see this now, sorry I was a jerk, sorry I was wrong, and to those who loved me enough to try to correct me — I’m sorry I didn’t listen because I was so certain I was right. I wasn’t.

My Facebook newsfeed is awash with discussions about Halal food. Today it’s Halal Easter Eggs (from Cadbury). Last week it was people speculating about links between Halal food and funding for people trying to introduce Sharia Law to Australia, or funding for terrorism.

I think all food is certified by the true and living God, provided it is “received with thanksgiving,”

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5

And, the ultimate key to “certified,” God-approved, food,” is Jesus, who calls himself the “bread of life.”

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval… “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6

Halal Easter eggs are a great opportunity to love your Muslim neighbours and share the message of Easter with them. But getting to that conclusion, and dealing with some of the objections Christians have to Halal food, might take some doing…

Halal is an Islamic term that means “permitted” it is the opposite of Haram, which means not permitted. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on Halal, I’m not a Muslim. It would be odd for me to do so. But, from what I gather, for a food to be permissible for a Muslim (Halal) it simply needs to not be haram — there are certain foods, especially meat, where there are guidelines that must be met to ensure certain boxes are ticked. Outside of this, it seems most foods (those not forbidden) are fair game.

Here’s what the Australian Food and Grocery Council says about Halal certification.

Many Australian food manufacturers seek Halal certification of their facilities and processes, in order to label their products as Halal and ensure they are able to be enjoyed by Muslim consumers. In the same way that food labeled as vegan or gluten-free is suitable for consumption by a broad range of consumers, Halal certified foods are commonly enjoyed by non-Muslims.

For a product to be Halal, it must be as a whole, and in part:

  • free from any substance taken or extracted from a Haram animal or ingredient (e.g. pigs, dogs, carnivorous animals, animals not slaughtered in compliance with Islamic rites);
  • made, processed, manufactured and/or stored by using utensils, equipment and/or machinery that has been cleaned according to Islamic law (e.g. not cleaned with alcohol); and
  • free from contact with, or being close to, a Haram substance during preparation, manufacture, processing and storage (e.g. blood, alcohol, poisonous and intoxicating plants and insects such as worms and cockroaches).

Many foods and drinks, particularly those that do not contain meat or alcohol, are inherently compliant with Halal criteria. Official certification, which may be granted by accredited religious authorities in Australia, any claim of certification is however required before products are able to be labelled as such.

Halal certification is a gateway into a massive industry, a Monash University study estimates the Halal industry’s global value at $3 trillion, and growing, with the Halal food market a relatively small $700 billion per year segment of this industry. This primer on Halal certification from The Conversation suggests it’s $1.75 trillion. It makes sense (and cents) for Australian food producers to try to sell their products to a large portion of the international population.

I get the impression that Halal certification is simultaneously a semi-unnecessary marketing tool, and part of an increasingly global marketplace — it seems to me that the Islamic world survived pretty well for a long time without labels on food. But setting up businesses to make it clear that particular food stuffs are free of contaminants is a clever business model for serving the Islamic world.

Business sense aside, there seems to be some “Christian” concern out there about halal food on the shelves of grocery stores in Australia, and in the pantries of non-Muslim households.

These concerns seem to operate on a few levels. At least so far as the social media campaigns and anti-halal campaigners are concerned (I won’t link to these campaigns because I don’t think they need the oxygen).

  1. The costs imposed to “Aussie” businesses and passed on to non-Islamic consumers.
  2. The supposed links to terrorism and Sharia Law.
  3. That Halal food is “food sacrificed to idols” so Christians shouldn’t eat it.

It’s the third point that I think is most interesting, but I’ll deal with the first two first.

It seems to me that Aussie businesses who pursue halal certification are doing so in order to increase their profits, to expand their markets, I’d hope that this means the benefits outweigh the costs and that rather than passing on costs to the non-Halal audience, the costs of Halal certification are covered by being able to sell their goods to people who would not otherwise buy them. I’m yet to see anyone offering anything like proof, and a few spurious economic arguments that seem to ignore the massive commercial benefits for entering this industry, for the idea that these increased costs will impact consumers.

Halal certification is carried out by a range of organisations, some, it seems, are businesses that have set themselves up to supply services according to this new market, presumably, these businesses are operated by Muslims, who, as a result of their faith, give a portion of their income as zakat (much like a Christian might give to their church), others, like Muslims Australia are a specifically religious institution that invest income generated through their certification into Muslim institutions (mosques, schools, etc).

Consumers in Australia (and everywhere, really) are free to make decisions about what they consume, just as businesses are free to make decisions about how best to open up their products to new markets, deciding who to sell, or not sell, to.

Should Christians oppose Halal?

If Halal products are, directly or indirectly, supporting Muslim institutions, and the expansion of Islam, should we, as Christians, not buy Halal? How should we decide what products to buy, beyond this debate? How do we shop in a way that is consistent with our faith?

Part of making this decision will include being educated about what cause the money that goes to a certain company might support, but where do we draw the line? Why are Christians not campaigning about companies giving money to workers who use it to buy cigarettes, or pornography, or who choose to gamble it? Or companies that profit from these industries? Are they not equally harmful to the end user in terms of the soul? And, more harmful, in terms of the body?

Consumer ethics are a pretty massive minefield, and it’s hard to know where to start drawing a line, saying “boycott X, because X is bad,” it’s hard to know whether or not metaphorical fruit that comes from a metaphorical tree we buy from is poisonous because of its roots. It’s harder still to find fruit that isn’t tainted in some way in a poisonous world full of people who do things that are opposed to God, and for their own benefit (not the benefit of others), by nature (though when it comes to frozen berries that carry hepatitis these concerns about poisonous fruit might be justified and non-metaphorical).

It’s good to shop ethically. It’s good to be informed. It’s good to support people who are doing good. It’s also good, I suspect, to support people because you want to love them well and see them be able to put food on the table for their families. But where is the line when it comes to companies supporting religious ideologies? Do we eat Certified Kosher meat? It hasn’t been prayed over during the sacrifice, but presumably the Kosher certification bodies are funding Judaism? What about businesses run by Christians whose teaching you disagree with? I don’t particularly like some stuff Hillsong says, but that’s not what stops me buying Gloria Jeans coffee (the lack of quality does). I think the Seventh Day Adventists teach a pretty messed up version of Christianity, with a harmful approach to the Old Testament, but this doesn’t stop me buying Sanitarium products. I don’t ask every owner of every business how they’re going to spend their profits. If an Islamic business wants to fund their version of Islam, by allowing a non-Islamic business to sell food to people who trust their certification process, then this seems to be the product of a free market. The non-Islamic business is free to make educated decisions about who certifies their food, for whom, and there are plenty of options out there.

We have great freedom, as consumers, to choose what to buy, and what to eat. More freedom than, historically, anybody has ever enjoyed.

I’m not really interested, in this post, in convincing you not to exercise this freedom. Quite the contrary. But I do think it’s important that we’re consistent in how we exercise this freedom, and that we’re not doing it out of fear, or worse, hatred. It’s downright bad for the Gospel when Christians take part in campaigns against companies and people who exercise this freedom when we are operating out of fear or hatred of the other – rather than love.

I think it’s great when Christians campaign against certain sorts of consumption out of love for people (eg when we stand up against gambling, or pay day loans, or pornography, or prostitution, in a way that loves those whose lives these insidious industries destroy). I think false religions — as a form of idolatry — are destructive, but I don’t think the right response to destructive false religions is hate, or fear, but love.

The loving answer to false religions, is Jesus, not wiping out the food supplies as though these religions are a city under siege.

It seems to me that one way to love our Muslim neighbours is to allow them to eat food in good conscience, just as we might feel loved if we are allowed to eat food in good conscience. If halal certification allows that, then I can’t see how, generally, this is a problem.

As Christians we shouldn’t be on about poisoning the proverbial waterhole — limiting a Muslim’s access to food they can eat— but we should be on about holding out the bread and water of life. Jesus.

There is no way that we can equate campaigning against halal food with God’s work. It is not what we’re called to do… God has his own seal of approval, his own certification method, his own version of certified food — it’s from Jesus, and it is Jesus. Here’s a thing Jesus says, just after he’s fed the 5,000 in John’s Gospel.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6

Bacon is part of the good news of the Gospel (Why Christians don’t follow the Old Testament food laws)

As Christians, our great desire for people is that they enjoy their freedom, we should, I believe, be promoters of freedom. Promoting the freedom to enjoy the goodness of God, that comes through the good news of the Gospel, news where your standing before God doesn’t depend on keeping a bunch of rules and regulations about what you eat, but on God’s good gift to people in Jesus.

The Old Testament contains a bunch of regulations, like the Halal/Haram food laws in Islam, that guided God’s people before Jesus.

Christians don’t have to worry about food laws. And that’s good news. Christians can speak about finding freedom in following God and truly mean it. Hopefully in a way that shows that certification plans for perfectly tasty food are a bit of a rort.

Ultimately, Jesus being the bread of life, the one who gives life, the one who defines “clean” and “unclean” is going to transform the way the people of God approach earthly food. The Old Testament was full of food laws that marked Israel as different from the nations around them, like this, from Leviticus 11:

And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

“‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. —Leviticus 11

No bacon. No lobster. No prawns. No prawns wrapped in bacon.

But Jesus is a game changer. Here’s a few important bits of Bible.

Jesus says it’s not what you eat that defines you as a person in God’s eyes. You aren’t what you eat, you are the product of your heart.

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” — Mark 7

What separates God’s people from here on in is not that they avoid mixed fabrics and bacon, it’s that they follow Jesus, are shaped by the Holy Spirit, and love people, one another, and people who don’t yet follow Jesus.

Here’s what a heart like that will look like. Here’s John, who had that stuff about Jesus being the bread of life before, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus…

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  — John 13

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” — John 15

And here’s some stuff from Matthew

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22

Both John and Matthew are recording words of Jesus from before his death, before his resurrection, before his people are given the Holy Spirit, and all of these statements anticipate the way Jesus loves people at the cross. Just in case we think John is talking about something else, later, in one of his letters, he writes:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. — 1 John 4

Why all this love stuff? What does love have to do with Halal food? What does love have to do with bacon? Hopefully that’ll become clearer, but it’s worth seeing that love, shaped by the way Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, is the foundation for any Christian response to any ethical issue. We do this so that people will know we are his disciples, that we are his children.

This also explains (apart from the fact that most of us aren’t Jewish) why we don’t follow the food laws. The Christian approach to food unites, rather than divides. Sharing food with someone is way of loving them.

There were some pretty major fights about food in the early church. Food was a big deal in both Jewish and Roman culture. It limited who Jewish people could associate with — the food laws in the Old Testament made it difficult to get out and about in Roman culture. Food was an identity marker then, as it is now (Halal food is an identity marker for Muslims, just as freedom to eat anything is an identity marker for Christians). Josephus, the Jewish historian, brags that Jewish food practices are consistently observed throughout the world:

“For there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come, and by which our fasts, and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed. — Josephus, Against Apion

Philostratus, a Roman writer, says this approach to food alienated the Jews from the Roman world.

“For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies.” — Philostratus, Life of Apollonius

This sort of distance is likely to get in the way of the spread of the Gospel to the non-Jewish world. Which explains what happens to Peter as God tells him to go and see Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, in the book of Acts.

“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him,“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” — Acts 10

 

Now, I’m pretty sure the food stuff isn’t just a symbol of the bigger point of Gentiles being included in God’s people through Christ, it’s also part of the means by which this will happen. When the church has to start grappling with how Jews and Gentiles co-exist in the body of Christ a few chapters later, they do away with almost all of the Old Testament food laws, with the exception of some that are linked to the practice of idolatry (and feasts in idol temples).

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

There’s a good case to be made that this is sort of shorthand for saying “Gentiles need to steer clear of idol-worship,” and that these are the steps that are required for Jewish Christians who are still keeping Torah (perhaps, like Paul when he visits Jerusalem, in order to preach the Gospel to Jews) to share what’s called ‘table fellowship’ with Gentile converts.

The apostle Paul applies the framework from Acts 15 in apparently different ways in different contexts – in Rome, and in Corinth. I wrote an essay on this in college which you can read online, the conclusion, in sum, is that in both situations Paul wants his readers to promote the Gospel in the way they eat, to eat with love for the other, whether that be eating in a way that is loving to people whose consciences don’t allow them to eat certain things, or eating in a way that allows you to share in the lives of non-believers.

“…if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” – Romans 14

“And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 8

Here’s Paul’s advice specifically about food sacrificed to idols, which, in Corinth, was just about every bit of meat sold in the marketplace (it comes just after Paul tells Christians not to join in idol worship and idol feasts in temples, possibly specifically referring to emperor worship in the Imperial Cult temple in Corinth.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — 1 Corinthians 10-11

There’s an interesting tension here, publicly participating in idol worship, in a way that suggests that false gods are real is a problem, but going to a non-Christian’s house, and eating with them, is great, unless they try to make dinner in their house something akin to an idol worship session, and it appears this is only an issue for Paul because it harms Christians who are bothered by it.

The other thing that I’ve always found interesting about these passages is that Paul talks about issues of conscience as being divides between the weak and the strong, but he, one of the leaders of the church, who is writing Scripture, takes a position on these issues that must surely have the affect of persuading some of the weak to alter their position.

Paul warns about people who will try to limit people’s freedom to enjoy the goodness of God. He may well be talking about bacon (although, it’s probably he’s talking about anyone who comes along saying that certain foods are off limits).

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5

Is Halal meat “food sacrificed to idols” – and what are the implications for Christians?

I think this collection of Bible passages has some interesting implications for Christians as we participate in discussions about Halal food. There’s a whole heap of Halal food that just falls into the “permissible” category for Muslims that doesn’t have anything especially religious done to it. It’s just certified because it’s not banned (and in some cases because it doesn’t contain banned ingredients, where it might). I can’t fathom why Christians are opposed to Halal yoghurt, or chocolate (I can fathom why Islamophobes are, because fighting against Halal certification in any form is striking a blow for that ideology). Halal meat, on the other hand, is meat slaughtered following a process called Dhabīḥah. There are some interesting bits of the Qur’an governing this process, one bit says:

“Forbidden for you are carrion, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that which has been slaughtered while proclaiming the name of any other than God, and one killed by strangling, and one killed with blunt weapons, and one which died by falling, and that which was gored by the horns of some animal, and one eaten by a wild beast, except those whom you slaughter; and that which is slaughtered at the altar and that which is distributed by the throwing of arrows [for an omen]; this is an act of sin.”— al-Māʼidah 5:3

I’m not an expert on interpreting the Qur’an, but the clause “while proclaiming the name of any other than God” has some interesting implications, it has been held to mean that a specific prayer must be uttered as the animal is slaughtered, or, failing that, the slaughter is to be conducted by a “person of the book”— which includes Christians and Jews — so that there is no possibility the animal has been sacrificed to an (Islamic) idol.

Interestingly, except for the prayer to Allah, this process is pretty much what the Old Testament, and Acts 15, calls for to keep Jewish food laws enough to enable table fellowship between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. To be clear, I think the freedom the Gospel brings includes the freedom to eat a medium rare steak, but I wouldn’t do this with a Jewish Christian (or a vegetarian Christian), if exercising my freedom in this way caused them to stumble. Even if I would write something like this to outline why I think it’s ok (good even) to eat a medium rare steak as an act of appreciating something delicious that God made. 

If the above approach which outlines a consistent treatment of idol food in the New Testament is right, then there are some interesting implications in the Halal debate. Just to sum up in case it wasn’t clear above I’ve suggested that non-Jewish converts were urged to avoid meat linked to idolatry for the sake of fellowship with Jewish Christians (Acts 15), Paul then upholds this instruction in cases where a Christian brother or sister might be lured into idolatry, or disunity, and have their faith destroyed (1 Corinthians 8, 10-11, Romans 14-15), while essentially agreeing with those who take a position that emphasises Christian freedom — provided the food is received with thanksgiving, and eaten for the glory of God (which, could be, in a sense, said to be something of a spiritual trump card that wipes out the prior idolatry, perhaps), and both in Acts 10 and 1 Corinthians 10 the eating of previously ‘unclean’ food, and, food sacrificed to idols is part of the spread of the Gospel to non-Jews (provided it doesn’t lead them to get confused about the validity of idols).

The guiding principle is conscience —exercising Christian freedom should never come at the expense of your own conscience or the conscience of others. This seems to be behind Paul’s specific instruction, regarding idol meat in the market place (which was probably all the meat except the Kosher stuff), or, perhaps, Halal meat in the shopping centres.This meat sold in the Corinthian market place was typically meat from the many sacrifices in the many idol temples of Corinth. Presumably the market vendors bought this meat from these temples, presumably the proceeds were funding these temples, and yet Paul says to “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” 

Paul expects Christians to eat this meat with non-Christians. I’m not sure that there were idolators in Corinth who were so pedantic about the source of their meat that they would only eat meat sacrificed to their idol, so it’s interesting to ponder whether or not Paul would have served idol meat to such a person in order to dine with them, and whether that means we should serve Halal meat to Muslims in order to dine with them. But I suspect he would have. He was keen to behave like a Jew to win the Jews, and like a Greek to win the Greeks (1 Corinthians 9), and would obey Jewish laws (presumably including food laws) in order to reach Jews (even though there’s some confusion in Jerusalem, from the crowd in the Temple, as to whether this is the case in Acts 21), and, I think (and this is speculative), given the importance of conscience in his framework, he would want Muslims he was sharing the Gospel with both to see the freedom from food laws that is caught up with the message of Jesus, and for them to act according to their conscience until such time that they wanted this freedom for themselves.

It’s probable that Paul wouldn’t have rocked up in the local mosque to join into the slaughter of an animal in any way that affirmed the truth of Islam, but beyond that, he’d have been keen to win Muslims to Jesus, and to enjoy the delicious meat God made in all its deliciousness as an act of thanksgiving to God for his goodness.

Are Halal Easter Eggs “food sacrificed to idols” and what are the implications

But what about Halal Easter Eggs? If the meat question is a grey area, Halal certification where no sacrificial prayer is offered to Allah, but the certification is purely an indication that nothing Haram is involved is much more black and white.

Halal Easter Eggs are an incredible opportunity to include Muslims in your celebration of Easter. Presumably, as a conscientious Christian consumer you’re not buying into the commercialism, or idolatry, of chocolate at Easter, but you’re enjoying the opportunity to talk about Easter as a celebration of new life, and eggs as a symbol of that celebration, you know, the new life found in Jesus, through his death and resurrection. If that’s the case, and there’s no sense that you might be mistaken for a follower of the idolatrous God of crass commercialism, then I’d recommend buying up big on Halal Easter Eggs and sharing them with the neighbours in your street — Muslim or otherwise — inviting them to enjoy the good news of Jesus, bacon, and chocolate. But mainly Jesus.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Addressing #thedress

thedress

I see blue and black/grey/goldy-brown. How about you?

Anyway. What you saw isn’t really as important, in my mind, as why you saw it.

Kottke points to this pretty incredible look at how Buzzfeed managed to dominate #thedress as it moved from trend to meme to whatever it eventually became. 27 million page views. More people visited Buzzfeed’s #thedress post than live in Australia.

“This is not said as an endorsement of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is utterly deserving of insanely paranoid criticism just like anyone who makes money from your attention, including me. But it’s worth pointing out that their recipe for traffic seems to be: Hire tons of people; let them experiment, figure out how social media works, and repeat endlessly; with lots of snacks. Robots didn’t make this happen. It was a hint of magic, and some science.”

Anyway. En route to that thing Kottke points to, he shared a couple of nice little anecdotes that are worth capturing and filing away in the ‘stuff to use one day in a talk’ or ‘interesting life lessons’… one of Australia’s best marketing minds (in my opinion), Sean Cummins, once said at a thing I was at “genius comes through the prolific” (he said Einstein said this, but I can’t find any thing to back that up). These are nice demonstrations of that principle.

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

 

 

Domestic Violence is very much on the agenda in the Australian public square. As well it should be. We, Australians, have a problem. We’re not alone. It’s a problem shared by many throughout the world — across ethnic and religious lines. A problem, it seems, that is fairly prevalent within our churches.

Here are some statistics about domestic violence in Australia.

  • 23 per cent of women who had ever been married or in a de-facto relationship, experienced violence by a partner at some time during the relationship.
  • 82 per cent of domestic violence cases are not reported to the police
  • Of women who were in a current relationship, 10 per cent had experienced violence from their current partner over their lifetime, and 3 per cent over the past 12 months.
  • Thirteen women have died from domestic violence in Australia in the first 7 weeks of 2015.

It’s a problem that leaders of churches — and members of churches — must face up to, and bring to light. Especially when the Bible is used to justify violence within the context of marriage. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Julia Baird has published two recent articles in the Herald, highlighting the problem in her own patch – the Anglican Church in Sydney (Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church, and Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect). Baird is a former member of the Anglican Synod who has long argued against the Anglican approach to gender, complementarianism, so she has an agenda that is being advanced by these stories. I say this because too much of the knee-jerking about these articles has appeared to be responding to the link Baird posits between this position and violence, and not enough has unequivocally condemned any church that seems to allow, through its teaching on gender and marriage, domestic violence to continue unchecked. Often the responses have demanded ‘evidence’ of an epidemic of violence within the church. Baird’s second piece profiles a few stories she has heard in response to the first, and this was followed by this harrowing account from a survivor of domestic violence. It is uncomfortable reading, but necessary reading.

“My then husband was supposedly a Christian, a very pious, rather obsessive one. He was a great amateur preacher, very encouraging to his friends and evangelistically inclined. He led Bible studies. He wanted to train for the ministry.

He just had one little problem. He liked psychologically torturing me. And dragging me by the hair around our apartment. And punching me – hard, whilst telling me how pathetic I was. He gave me lists with highlighted sections of Bible passages about nagging wives and how I should submit to him. I was subjected to almost the full catalogue of abusive behaviour.”

This story was posted anonymously to the SMH, for legal reasons, but I know who the author is and have no doubt whatsoever that it is true.

We. Complementarians. Have a problem. If we want to continue to maintain the Biblical view of marriage relationships (because, lets face it, the Bible clearly limits ‘submission’ on the basis of gender to the marriage context, and within the church context — relationships entered into voluntarily by people of both genders — not to all relationships and social structures), if we want to maintain this view that men and women are different but equal, and when the two are united as one in marriage this involves something the Bible calls ‘submission,’ then we need to be very careful about how we describe submission, and how far we see this voluntary orientation-in-relationship extending. We need to be clear so that wives do not think submitting to their husbands means letting them physically or emotionally abuse them.

Here are some of my thoughts, working through some of the bits of the Bible that feature in this space. I’m not an expert, but I do think, as a leader of a church, I need to both speak out on this issue and work out what the Gospel of Jesus compels us to do in this space. I’d love help with this. I feel pretty ill-equipped to tackle it.

What God thinks of domestic violence, and abusers

Domestic violence, like other forms of abuse, happens in darkness. It is darkness. Sin. It is horrific. It’s a shattering of something that God created and designed to be a good gift to his people. And more than that. A picture of his steadfast, gracious, covenantal, sacrificial, love for his people. I don’t understand why Christians seem reluctant to believe that such violence and abuse happens within church communities. Communities consisting of consistently broken, sinful, people. It shouldn’t surprise us that people sin. And as people who follow Jesus — who trust in him to deal with sin — we should want to drag this stuff out into the light, rather than covering it up.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3.

That is what Jesus does. It’s what he’s on about. Bringing evil to light.

There is no possible Biblical justification for domestic violence. None. It is evil.

There is no justification I can think of for Christian pastors to follow the advice of a prominent American pastor that she should “endure verbal abuse for a season”, and “endure perhaps being smacked one night”, before seeking “help from the church.” It is never loving to allow someone you love to do evil — it is loving to bring evil to light, to help the person you love to see the world as it is, to see Jesus as he is — the one who judges evil. There’s something especially serious about people who call themselves Christians who refuse to have their sinfulness brought into light —and, just to be clear again, domestic violence is sinful. It is so far removed from God’s design for his world, his character, and any Biblical definition of love, that we cannot possibly find any way to describe it as anything else.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” — 1 John 3

This is not to say there is no forgiveness from God for abusers — should they see their abusing as the sin it is, and bring it to light, turning to Jesus. The radical good news of the Gospel and the transformation God offers to those who follow Jesus, who are transformed into his image by the Holy Spirit, is real change for offenders. For criminals. Real hope. Domestic violence is a crime. A crime according to our laws, a crime against the abused, and a crime against God. But if the abuser truly hears the Gospel there is real hope for forgiveness from God, and for real changed behaviour. Abusers can become people who love like Jesus loves. That is what being a follower of Jesus looks like.

 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” —1 John 3

 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. —1 John 4

Real love. Real love in the real world is love that reflects the real living God. This is a profound critique of false versions of love. But this sort of real, sacrificial, others-centred, love is what love is. And it couldn’t be further removed from perpetrating abuse or violence in a marriage.

What marriage is

 

Marriage is meant to be a picture of God’s love for us in Jesus. This is from the end of one of the most contentious passages in this space — one that is occasionally (wrongly) used by abusers to justify their abuse (and we’ll get to that).

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” — Ephesians 5

Over and over again God’s relationship with us is described as being a marriage — God’s people are his bride. He loves us. Sacrificially. He submits himself to abuse on our behalf. But he is not the abused spouse, in this picture, he is acting from a position of strength to protect his beloved. The abuse is from those who would see him killed. Scandalously, we, his bride, were once amongst that number. The bits of Bible I’ve quoted so far have all come from John, which is deliberate, because John explains this shocking truth at the start of his story of Jesus’ life, and I reckon his prologue is the key to understanding everything else John writes about Jesus, the Gospel, his letters, and even Revelation. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… 

 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” — John 1 

See how this links his words about Jesus bringing light into darkness, defeating darkness (like in John 3), see how this idea that through him we become God’s children (like in 1 John), but the thing that blows my mind a bit is the idea of his own not receiving him, what happens to Jesus is violence from people who should love him. In John 18 and 19, Jesus is slapped around by the religious people who are meant to be the ones receiving him with love, he is denied and abandoned by his disciples, who are meant to be the people who love him, Jesus is flogged, and then the crowd — the people he came to save, yell “crucify, crucify,” and he is put to death.

Ignoring, for a moment, domestic abuse involving the abuse of a husband by a wife — and I’m not denying that this happens, or that it’s a real problem — the Bible paints a picture of Christ being the loving, faithful, husband of his wife — the church, and he does not dish out abuse on his bride.

If we take accept that marriage is ultimately designed be a reflection of God’s self-giving love — both within the Trinity and displayed in his love for his people in Jesus — then we can’t possibly see any reflection of that love involving abuse within a marriage.

Jesus, the husband, does not abuse his bride. He suffers abuse for her sake as an act of love. He does not abuse. He submits to be abused, so that his bride is protected. The bride does not protect him, or submit to abuse in order to save him.

Whatever Christlike submission to abuse looks like — and this is sometimes (wrongly) invoked to encourage abused wives to bear with their abuse — it involves someone operating from a position of incredible strength, wilfully not exercising that strength for the sake of others. It is not a physically weaker person allowing themselves to be abused by someone stronger. It is a strong person taking the blows of people who think they are strong, for the sake of the weak and oppressed.

And just to be clear— abuse is sinful, and it is never ok for a Christian spouse to abuse their partner, and it is never ok for abuse to continue, and allowing abuse to continue is not submission to your spouse but allowing them to remain in darkness. 

In John’s logic, Jesus is not abused by the church —who in believing in him become his children, not the baying crowd.

But he is abused on their behalf.

He uses his strength to shield his children from death and judgment. His submission is an act of love and it is never at the cost of those he submits for  In John the whole time we read what he’s saying about Jesus we’re meant to remember that this is God’s powerful creative Word, in the flesh, this is light and life. This is power. On display.

The Gospel doesn’t make sense if Jesus doesn’t have the power to come down from the Cross whenever he wants. If he is not fully God. As Philippians 2 describes his submission:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

Verbal abuse. Physical abuse. These are not simply a violation of the wedding vows, these are the wilful destruction of the marriage relationship, and everything that it stands for. Domestic violence is especially pernicious because of what marriage is — a committed, one flesh, relationship between two people. Marriage is an expression of the oneness of God and the love of God. It’s not the be all and end all for humanity, but it is a special human relationship that expresses something good and true about God, and about love.

On ‘headship,’ ‘submission’ and abuse

And this, I think, is where ‘submission’ and ‘headship’ — those words Baird has turned into pejoratives in this space — actually should function to prevent abuse ever happening in a Christian marriage if it is understood as a relationship that God intends as a metaphor of his eternally enduring sacrificial love for his people, which is displayed so powerfully at the Cross.

Here’s the really contentious verses from Paul in Ephesians 5, and Peter, in 1 Peter.

In 1 Peter, starting in chapter 2, Paul explores what it looks like to submit like Jesus did — to live in a way that displays the Gospel.

“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives” — 1 Peter 2-3

While these verses have been weaponised by abusers to justify their abuse, I don’t think submitting to your husbands means allowing them to sinfully abandon and destroy their marriage vows. And I think it’s absolutely clear from the logic of the passage that this ‘submission’ is for the sake of winning people to Christ, it assumes that the husband in this case, is a non-Christian, and there’s a strong suggestion that any particular abuse Peter is referring to here is caught up with first century husbands not being especially happy that their wives have abandoned their household gods — religion was typically a family matter — in order to follow Jesus. Peter, at the start of this series of injunctions to live like Jesus says “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us,” and then provides a series of examples that apply this principle to people in their existing relationships. The other thing to notice in Peter comes a few verses after the wives bit, it makes it clear, I think, that Peter isn’t calling for any difference in behaviour based on gender, Christian husbands are also called to adopt the same approach as Jesus…

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” — 1 Peter 4

The idea of mutual submission being at the heart of a Christian marriage is pretty strong — I’d say it’s linked to the nature of the self-giving, mutual, eternal, love of the persons of the Trinity towards one another. But this sort of love also allows for voluntary roles in which submission looks and feels different, without the equality of the persons being undermined. And this is at the heart of true complementarianism.

So here are more of Paul’s words from Ephesians… I’ve bolded the bits that I think we often miss when we try to use these as justification for abuse, or the weaponising of ‘headship’ or ‘submission.’ (It’s interesting, isn’t it, how similar Paul is to both Peter and John here).

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved childrenand walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talkor coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light…

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for herto make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—  for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

Some implications

Here’s what I think are some of the implications of the above — I’m keen to hear if I’ve missed any, especially if people have experience in this area, these are simply what I think are necessary implications of what the Bible says.

  • We cannot possibly, as the church, desire to keep domestic violence in the darkness.
  • We cannot possibly, as the church, desire stories like the one in the Herald, or in our own churches, stay untold or hidden, for the sake of protecting our brand.
  • We cannot possibly side with, or be seen to side with (even by our failure to condemn) the perpetrators of violence, rather than the victims. Christians will have no fear of their sin being brought into light, but rather will welcome it as a chance to repent and be transformed.
  • There is no possible justification for domestic violence in the Bible and we need to say that clearly, over and over again, until people believe it.
  • The first step for people experiencing domestic violence is to get out of the situation where the violence is occurring. To separate. And to seek help. This will involve the police — because domestic violence is a crime. If seeking help involves speaking to leaders of a church they have a responsibility to report abuse, as is the case in any situation of abuse. In the case of one or both of the spouses being Christians, these situations will involve the church dealing with both parties, especially to care for and protect the abused, but with the hope that the Gospel will result in real change for the abuser.
  • Separation isn’t divorce, and divorce, as a response to persistent, unrepentant, domestic violence is something that the Bible allows because it is such a clear abandonment of the wedding vows (1 Cor 7) and represents a complete destruction of the good thing God has made.
  • What the on the ground reality of these implications looks like will be different based on how much transformation occurs in the relationship — and the key to this transformation is the Gospel of Jesus, and the love of Jesus, which creates people who love like Jesus.  There is no real blanket rule on how this works beyond bringing the abuse to light, this doesn’t necessarily mean publicly broadcasting the abuse, but it does mean making it known to those who are in a position to end it.
  • It is clear that Christians should expect our approach to domestic violence to be, somehow, different to secular approaches — the example of Jesus is, somehow, to be brought to bear in our broken relationships. For both the abuser, and the abused. The Gospel, as it is accepted and as it becomes the basis for transformation of people and relationships (and people in relationships) will change the way we approach brokenness. The Gospel, as it is accepted and as it transforms, does not really allow such brokenness to remain in the dark, or to remain unaddressed. The profoundly challenging part of the Gospel is that when we submit like Jesus (not in a way that enables ongoing sin or abuse) we expect it to change those abusers who follow Jesus, and those who are victims of abuse. Submission, from the abused, does not mean staying in abuse, but it might mean a loving and longing desire for one’s abuser (Jesus even calls us to love our enemy) to be transformed by the Gospel, forgiven by God (and an offer of forgiveness), and for restoration and reconciliation to occur. Christlike submission means seeking this transformation and being committed to some form of this at one’s own cost (forgiveness, itself, is costly), even from the safety of separation — let me be clear again, it doesn’t mean staying in an abusive situation. Where this transformation does not occur it doesn’t mean persistence with this broken relationship beyond abandonment. But the Gospel does offer the hope of real change in the heart, and actions, of the abuser.

She shells sea shells

This is almost enough to make me want a pet hermit crab. Aki Inomata, a Japanese artist, made these (and other) 3D printed ‘shelters’ for some hermit crabs.

 

Here’s a video of moving day.

Incredible // Three minute music video, shot in 5 seconds

 

“This is a real video performance, a slow motion video, a sequence map with a traveling in front of 80 extras placed on 80 meters along a little road, lost in an industrial area. Filmed at 1000 frames/second with a Phantom flex 4k from a car driven at 50km/h, the shooting took 5 seconds for a 3’30 video: a living and dreamlike mural.”

Here’s the incredibly short making of video…

tertullianquote

News broke yesterday that ISIS had beheaded 21 Egyptians for being “people of the Cross.” Images from the dramatic and disturbingly choreographed and colour coordinated public statement are circulating around the internet, but I have no desire to aid the spread of ISIS propaganda, so you won’t find them here.

What you will find is some further processing of these events, consider this the latest in a series of thinking out loud, which started with the “We Are N” post, and incorporates the post responding to the siege in Sydney’s Martin Place, and the post responding to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris.In the first, I explore the relationship between Christianity and martyrdom —  something this post will unpack a bit more. In the second I suggest that one of the things we need to keep recognising in this ISIS situation is that people are motivated by religious beliefs, and that even if ISIS does not represent mainstream Islam (which, by all accounts from mainstream Islamic clerics, it does not), it does represent a form of religious belief. This is a case made in this article from The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. In the third, I suggest that the Cross of Jesus is the thing that should shape Christian responses to brokenness in the world, our ‘religious motivation,’ and that this is the key to responding well to radical religious violence.

This latest horror brings all of these threads together.

I don’t know how you process events like this — it probably depends greatly on your vision of the world, of life, and death. I’m still figuring out what an appropriate response to this looks like. Part of me is just an emotional ball of anger at the world, perhaps even at God, a raging, fist shaking lament at the injustice in yesterday’s events. Part of me cries out for the sort of “justice” that the Egyptian government has promised to exact, but I’m not sure that actually solves anything (it may even make things worse). Part of me believes that this event is an incredibly clear picture of the vision of hope held out by two different religious outlooks  — involving two different sorts of “fundamentalist.”

If you’re not a Christian (or a Muslim) then you may look at this event, and other executions carried out by ISIS, as just another mark chalked up on the wall in a battle between two groups fighting over whose imaginary friend has more power, if you’re a mainstream Muslim you may be horrified that, once again, you’ll be called on to explain the actions of people who have taken up the name of your faith and used it to destroy others. If you, like me, are a Christian, you might be trying to figure out how to parse out the simultaneous shock and horror at this situation, the turmoil in your own inner-monologue as you grapple with the question “what if my faith were tested like this,” and, perhaps you might worry that you have what some (even you, as you mull it over) might consider a perverse sense that these Christians are heroes, whose faith encourages you in your own suffering, or lack of suffering.

Hopefully, the universal human response — beyond the response of those carrying out the killings — is one that involves the realisation that these events are a very loud, very clear, indicator that something is very wrong with this world. It may be that you think religion, and violence like this, is at the heart of what is wrong with the world, or it may be that this brokenness we see in the world causes us to seek after God, forcing us to work through the different pictures of God we find in different religious frameworks.

This particular story — the execution of 21 “people of the Cross” is actually a picture of two religious fundamentalists acting entirely consistently with the fundamentals of their beliefs (not necessarily as fundamentalists of everyone who chooses a similar label — but actions that are consistent with the motivations of the people involved).

In any of these cases you might wonder what motivates a person to act like this — as a religious fundamentalist —  either to carry out such atrocities on fellow humans, or to not renounce your faith in the face of such an horrific, violent, death? In both cases the answer is caught up with the religious notion of hope — a vision of the future, both one’s own, individual, future beyond death, and the future of the religious kingdom you belong to. This hope also determines how you understand martyrdom — giving up one’s own life (or taking the lives of others) in the name of your cause (or against the name of theirs).

It’s worth calling this out — making sure we’re sensitive to the distinction between this Islamic vision for the future, and the mainstream, because it’s in the actions of believers, on the ground, that we are able to compare the qualities of different religious visions of, and for, the world.

What we see in events like this is a clash of two religious visions for the world — a vision for hope secured by powerful conquest, the establishment of a kingdom, and martyrdom for that cause, and a vision for hope secured by God’s sacrifice for us, and his resurrection, which involves a kingdom established by the Cross, for ‘people of the Cross.’ This first vision is the motivation at the heart of the ISIS cause, and the latter is at the heart of a Christian view of martyrdom and hope. There’s also, potentially, a chance to examine a secular vision for the world —  which typically involves peace, or an end to conflict (perhaps especially religiously motivated conflict).

Every world view — whether religious, or secular, grapples with this brokenness, and aims to find a path towards an unbroken world. Clashes of world views — like this one, give us opportunities to examine what world view actually provides a meaningful path towards such a transformation. Such a path is fraught, I don’t think there are many solutions that don’t perpetuate the brokenness. I’ll suggest below that it’s only really Christian fundamentalism that will achieve this, the Atlantic article articulates the problem with potential non-religious/secular solutions, especially the military option.

“And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have givenbaya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?”

Christians believe we are saved, and the world is transformed, by martyrdom — but not our own

These 21 Egyptian ‘people of the Cross’ are not saved by their martyrdom.

They do not have extra hope because of the way they die.

They may have died because of their hope — hope placed in Jesus, but as Christians, our hope is not in our own lives, or our own deaths, as contributors to the cause of God’s kingdom, but rather, in God’s own life, and death, in the person of Jesus.

Jesus’ death. Not our own. Is where Christians see the path to paradise.

This produces a fundamentally different sort of kingdom. It produces a fundamentally different sort of fundamentalist. A person living out the fundamentals of Christianity is a person who is prepared to lay their life down as a testimony to God’s kingdom, out of love for others — to lay down one’s own life for the sake of our ‘enemies’ and our neighbour. Because that is what Jesus did, for us.

Here’s what Paul says is at the heart of Jesus’ martyrdom. His death. From his letter to the Romans.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” 

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Later, in the same letter, Paul shows how this martyrdom becomes the paradigm for a Christian understanding of life, death, and following God. A very different outlook, and a very different fundamentalism, to what we see in ISIS.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship…”

And a little later in the same part of the letter, we get an outline of a Christian response to these truly evil, and horrific, killings  — and, indeed, to all the evil and brokenness we see in the world. When we live like this, we live out our hope, we become living martyrs, embodying the values of our kingdom and following our king.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is a picture of Christian fundamentalism. It’s an exploration of what it looks like to be people of the Cross.

Bizarrely — the horrific killings ISIS is carrying out, especially as they execute ‘people of the Cross’ actually serve Christians who are looking to express our own hope as we offer ourselves in this way.

We bear witness to his martyrdom in the way we lay down our lives for others — even as we live. Christian martyrdom involves bearing faithful witness to the one martyr who gains access to the Kingdom through self-sacrifice. When we get this picture we can be confident that God’s power rests in our weakness, rather than our displays of strength. This produces a fundamentally different political vision and approach to life in this world, and the comparison is never starker than it is when it is displayed in the face of a religious ideology like that of ISIS, which mirrors, in so many ways, the religious ideology of the Roman Imperial Cult, and its persecution of the earliest people of the Cross.

This is the hope one of the earlier Christians, Tertullian, articulated to the Roman Emperor, as he called on them to stop executing Christians, his argument, in part, because killing Christians was not serving the Roman Empire, but God’s empire. He wrote a thing to Rome called an Apology  — a defence of the Christian faith, and the place of Christianity within the Empire. It’s where the quote in the image at the top of the post comes from. This quote (this is the extended edition).

“No one indeed suffers willingly, since suffering necessarily implies fear and danger.  Yet the man who objected to the conflict, both fights with all his strength, and when victorious, he rejoices in the battle, because he reaps from it glory and spoil. It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained.  This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued…

…Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.

This is what Christian fundamentalism looks like. We need more Christian fundamentalists. More Christian martyrs. More people expressing this hope in how they live and die.

This, amongst my prayers of lament for those killed as people of the cross, and in the face of the brokenness of the world, and the horror of the Islamic State’s vision of ‘hope,’ is what I’m praying. That God will bring justice for these killings, but that he will also bring hope through them, as people catch sight of the sort of lives lived by Christian fundamentalists. People of the cross.

I want to be that sort of person — a person of the cross — to be known that way, this is one of the realisations I have come to while processing these killings.

It is only when we whose hope, whose visions of the future, are shaped by Jesus live as Christian fundamentalists, in the Romans 12 sense, that we have any hope of really, truly, presenting the Christian hope for the world — God’s hope for the world — to others.

It’s the only real hope we have of fighting other visions for the future, or breaking the cycle of brokenness.

What other response won’t just perpetuate feelings of injustice? What other responses have any form of justice that doesn’t simply create another perpetrator of injustice? Visions of justice that don’t involve this sort of Christian fundamentalism — giving up one’s ‘rights’ for vengeance simply create a perpetual system of perpetrators. This is perhaps seen clearest as we see boots on the ground (Egypt) or off the ground (The US) in secular visions of the future — military responses to ISIS, and in the actions of ISIS itself. Violence begets violence. Ignoring violence also begets violence. Something has to break that cycle  — and the Cross, and the people of the cross, Christian fundamentalists, provide that circuit breaker. The message of the Cross also provides the path to paradise, the path to a restored relationship with the God who will restore the world, and the path to personal transformation both now, and in this transformed world. That’s a vision of the future I can get behind.

cicero

Eloquence, after all, has its own place among the supreme virtues. Of course, all the virtues are equal and equivalent, but still, one is more beautiful and splendid in appearance than another. This is the case with the power that I am talking about: having acquired all-embracing knowledge, it unfolds the thoughts and counsels of the mind in words in such a way that it can drive the audience in whatever direction it has applied its weight. And the greater this power is, the more necessary it is to join it to integrity and the highest measure of good sense. For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen

This term at Creek Road we’re looking at the life of Jesus as recorded in Mark’s Gospel. Mark brings the story of Jesus to life through the eyes of different people who meet him on his journey to the Cross. The people in the stories are a way in to seeing and hearing Jesus.

The word Gospel is a media term — Roman emperors used Gospels to proclaim their own greatness or to establish new titles so that the citizens of Rome could honour/worship them appropriately. The people who wrote about Jesus and called their writing Gospels didn’t do so in a vacuum — it was a very deliberate subversion of the Roman Empire (whose emperors called themselves the “Son of God”), leading up to the very deliberate subversion of the meaning of crucifixion and the symbol of the Cross.

So how should we recapture this approach to media in our day and age? That’s one of the things that thanks to our clever Media Team at Creek Road, we’re aiming to do in this series, called Jesus: Watch, Listen, Follow — and we’d love the online part of what’s going on to be something fun for people all over Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and the world. We’ve brought a bunch of the characters from Mark to life, on Twitter and Instagram and there’s a central website watchlistenfollow.org which introduces the characters and collates the posts. They’re posting as though the events of the Gospel are happening and they’re reacting, they’re interacting with people who tweet or comment on these posts, and then they’re appearing on Sundays as part of our kids talks at church.

Anyway. This is a big preamble to tell you that you totally have to, at least, follow the Roman Centurion (@r0mancent — Twitter, Instagram), especially if you need some motivation to soldier on, exercise, or read Roman philosophy.

Here are some samples.

Obviously some tweets are going to be closer to the Gospel narrative than others (which are character building). But if you’re keen to take part why not follow along, watch the story unfold, interact with the characters and share the good bits with your friends. That’s kind of how Gospels work.

If you love articulate British comedians and God, like I do, then this has been a pretty bizarre week for you. I’ve enjoyed the challenges posed to my understanding of God by Stephen Fry, and by the equally challenging account of the divine from Russell Brand.

Fry believes nothing is true about God. Brand believes everything we can possibly imagine about God is true because we can’t possibly know him because of our finite limitations in an infinite universe. While Brand’s approach to the God question is much closer to my own, I can’t help but think that I’d rather preach to people who think like Fry. His objections are actually easier to engage with than Brand’s wholesale lack of objections.

Both of them have such a profoundly anaemic picture of Christianity, and thus, I think, of God, because both of them entirely miss the point of Jesus.

In Jesus we see God’s response to the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world – the promise of a better world through the absolute victory over evil and death. But in Jesus we also see the gap between our finite limitations and God’s infinite nature bridged, so that truths about life, the universe, and everything, become knowable because the God who spoke life, the universe, and everything, by his word sends his word into the world, as a man. That’s how John, the disciple, describes the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus steps out of infinity, and into concrete, measurable, reality.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5

He comes to make God knowable – contrary to Brand’s understanding of God as expressed below…

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… or the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. — John 1:14, 17-18

I’m sharing these verses now because the right place to go when people ask questions about God — his character, his existence, or his nature, in order to understand nature, is always Jesus. At least in the first instance. That’s what John is claiming here. And Jesus, acting in this capacity, is largely missing from both Fry and Brand’s treatment of the God question.

There’s a fair bit of Bible in this post— because despite Fry’s very eloquent, tight, takedown of God, despite the appearance that this is a modern insight that makes belief in God completely untenable — these questions are complicated, but they’re answered incredibly thoroughly in the Bible, they aren’t questions that should be particularly confronting to Christians. Like every good Sunday School question, the answer is Jesus. If you’re reading because you think Fry has fired a shot that has fatally wounded God, or the Christian faith, can I encourage you to slog through it, and at least by the end you’ll understand why I haven’t, as a result of Fry’s video, quit my job and packed in my faith.

Jesus makes God knowable. He makes God approachable. He comes to bring light to darkness, order to chaos, comfort to the afflicted — he came to put an end to the exact problems Fry identifies with the world. The question of why a good God would allow such problems to occur is one that I’ve tried to answer in several thousand words elsewhere. But it’s a separate question.

Stephen Fry appeared on a show called “The Meaning of Life” and was asked what he, an atheist, would say to God if he were to be confronted by him after death.

Here’s his answer.

Here are some of the highlights…

“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

“Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”

“Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind,” he says. “They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”

“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

Wow. If you’re going to grapple with the Christian God — that is, God as Christians understand God to be — then you’ve got to take this God on the terms Christians take him. Fry totally fails to do this. He seems prepared to cherry pick bits of the Bible and Christian understandings of God that suit his picture of God, but he’s pretty dismissive of the bits that don’t make him a capricious monster.

The rudimentary Christian response to Fry — based on the same Bible he cherry picks from to build this picture of the God he doesn’t believe in — is that God did not make a world full of injustice and pain, he made a good world (Genesis 1), that humanity then stuffed up, when we tried to replace him and be our own gods, as a result this world was ‘cursed’ (Genesis 3)… but God sets about restoring the world through the rest of the Bible. Fry would have us be automatically obedient to God — prevented from such rebellion, but this creates the sort of “totally selfish” God he abhors. In terms of the question of other potential responses God could have taken to our rebellion, Brand is right to recognise the very finite, selfish, perspective we bring to these sorts of questions.

The slightly more complicated response would be that God made a world with flesh eating insects in it and gave humans the job of faithfully spreading the perfect and peaceful Garden of Eden over the face of the earth “subduing” the chaos, as we reflected his creation out of darkness (Genesis 1), that’s caught up in bearing his image, ruling his world as his representatives and being fruitful and multiplying… The dark, watery, formless world God works with after Genesis 1:2 is an ancient picture of a chaotic void that required subduing.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:2

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:26-28

If there wasn’t darkness to overcome, or something to fix, how then would we express this relationship? How would we be anything other than divine playthings— or servants— the kind you find in most other ancient religions.

We were given a job to do, as part of improving the world from good to perfect, and we failed to do that when we metaphorically flipped him the bird. Jesus completes this job. He defeats evil. That’s the storyline of the Bible in three sentences.

The properly human thing to do — if we’re going to be obedient image bearers, is to work to stop flesh eating insects burrowing into the eyes of children, and in plenty of cases through history, it’s Christians leading the charge against exactly this sort of brokenness in the world, because a Christian worldview equips us to think and engage well with such brokenness. Whatever motivation might Fry have to eradicate this bug as a result of his rejection of God? It will come from his humanism, not his atheism. Fry identifies a problem with the Christian God, but provides no more satisfying account of the mixed and broken nature of the world we live in than Christianity (I’m biased, but I’d say his views of the world are less coherent). This is actually a much better picture of what God hopes for from humanity than Fry’s conception of the faithful Christian life, where “we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?!” In this view of our created role, representing the creator in his good creation, we show our thankfulness to God and glorify him when we are creative, exercising our God-given imagination in line with this God-given purpose.

Let’s leave aside this dilemma for a moment, and turn, instead, to Russell Brand, and his response to Stephen Fry. This clip features a few more bits of the Stephen Fry interview, but also Brand’s own take on God. Brand says a lot of cool stuff that I agree with — but his answer, too, is completely devoid of Jesus.

There’s a bit in that video where Fry and Brand both talk about Jesus. They both talk about him as though he can be discussed apart from the nature of God — a treatment of Jesus foreign to any orthodox Christian since the very earliest days of the church (and arguably from the very earliest descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, and from the teaching of Jesus himself)

Fry says, of Jesus:

“I think he was a very good soul. An inspiration as a teacher. I do think a lot of the things he says are actually nonsense when you examine them. They seem very beautiful. But it’s a bit like the Dalai Llama. They’re actually twee, and completely impractical, and in that sense an insult to the human spirit. Like, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – at first you think that is wonderful, “yes, what hypocrites” how can you possibly have a justice system? Nobody would ever go to prison?”

So he’s hardly likely to find any answers to his big questions about God and suffering if he a priori rules out Jesus as a source of the answers to that question.

Brand has a go showing that Jesus’ teachings aren’t so ‘twee’ by applying this principal to the justice system… it’s an interesting exercise, and it certainly shows an awareness of the human heart…

“I would say that when you are condemning murderers or pedophiles is to acknowledge that within us all is the capacity for evil. As the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between nations, religions, continents or creeds, but through every human heart, so when you are judging the pedophile, when you are judging the worst kind of criminal, to acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest as negativity is also within us, and our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves, and if we can successfully negotiate with that then we can create a better society.”

The problem with this picture — so far as the Bible’s description of Jesus is concerned — is that it seems to me one of the necessary implications of the ‘he who is without sin’ passage is that it is Jesus, the one who is without sin, the one with the undivided heart, who, rightfully can throw stones (or judge) sinners, and who rightfully, can judge not just the worst kind of criminal but every one of us who has our heart split between good and evil. He’s also the one who creates the better society…

But I digress. Not so far, because what is clear here is that neither Brand nor Fry are operating, or engaging, with an understanding of Jesus that looks remotely like the understanding that Christians have of Jesus when it comes to questions of evil, suffering (Fry’s big thing), infinity, or our ability to know God in our limited human way (Brand’s big thing).

Brand’s God is what in theological terms is called transcendent —wholly other, unable to be properly described or contained using human words or senses. But he is not what, similarly, in theological terms, is called immanent — present and observable in this world (beyond some nebulous spiritual connection between all things that exist or are conscious).

His picture of God as the infinite, indescribable, ground of being and existence meshes up with the Christian God — except that the Christian God reveals things about himself through revelation, this is how Christians understand God, especially in the light of the life of Jesus — who claimed to be one with the father. And thus is the lynchpin between God’s immanence and his transcendence. Because Jesus lived, breathed, spoke, and died — and in living affirmed God’s previous revelation concerning himself in the Old Testament — we know that the God we believe in is not just the transcendent creator and sustainer of life and ‘being’ in this universe, but that he is also knowable, and describable (so long as we acknowledge out limits and recognise Jesus as they way in to such descriptions). In Jesus, God entered the finite world in a way that was accessible to our finite senses. In Jesus, God becomes accessible.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” — John 14:6-11

An interesting implication of Jesus’ description here, where his life perfectly represents the Father, is that this is what people were created to do. This is Jesus living out the good human life. The next thing he says is an invitation back to this type of function — which I think is a fair way removed from the picture of the ‘Christian’ life Fry paints.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” — John 14:12

In John 17, just before he’s arrested, he sums up his work in an interesting way in the light of the sort of work we were created for…

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” — John 17:3-4

A bit later Jesus describes what this sort of life looks like — it’s not rocket science to figure out how this might help us think about a human role in the face of suffering… it also puts paid, I think, to the idea that we need to be on our knees because God is some sort of self-seeking maniac.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ” — John 15:9-15

Here are some highlights from Brand. These aren’t things I completely agree with — but they’re things that people who want to dismiss God holus-bolus, like Fry, have to grapple with, or at least, I think, they need to provide an alternatively coherent account of the world if they want to subject the idea of God to ridicule.

Brand acknowledges the limitations of our humanity — something Fry, as an atheist-humanist is not so keen to do, because it doesn’t really mesh with his narrative that all you need for human flourishing is humanity, and human endeavour.

“Now Joseph Campbell, the cultural mythologist, said all religions are true in that the metaphor is true. So what Campbell is saying is that religion is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the same way that science is an attempt to explain the unknowable. Science can explain the mechanics of the universe, it can explain the mechanics of anatomy and biology, but can it ever explain the why? The answer is no. It can never explain the why. What we all want to know is is there a reason for us being here,and what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of our consciousness.”

Brand trots out the argument from an incredibly fine tuned universe as support for his believe in God. Which is interesting. He is also trying to grapple with the question of infinity — either the infinite nature of God, or of the universe against the very finite nature of our existence.

“I suppose what Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and Jaianism, and Buddhism are trying to do is make sense of our position, our perspective as awake, conscious, sentient beings within the infinite.”

He gets plenty wacky in his exploration of consciousness — but again, for those of us who accept that God is the ground of being for every life in this universe, there’s something quite close to what Christians might affirm here.

“For me, as a person who believes in God, my understanding is this, that my consciousness emanates from a perspective and it passes through endless filters, the filters of the senses, the subjective filters of the senses and of my own biography. This is good. This is bad. This is wrong. I want this. I don’t want this. But behind all of that there’s an awakeness. An awareness that sees it all. And it’s in you too. And it’s in Stephen Fry. And it’s in the man who interviewed him. It’s in all of us. An awakeness. An interconnectivity. None of us can ever know if there is a God. But we do know there is an us. None of us can ever know if there’s wrong or right. But we do know there is an us.”

Our finitude does, Brand suggests, come with certain limitations when it comes to making absolute moral judgments. Especially judgments of an infinite being. It’s a weird category jump to assess God in human terms, and that Fry wants to hold God up to human standards, or against some sort of definition of morality apart from God, suggests that he hasn’t quite grasped the nature of the God Christians believe in. God is not subject to universal moral principles deduced from our human experience — he is wholly other, he authored the universe, it exists within him, he is not a part of the universe from within.

“Now, we can argue that when a lion eats the gazelle it can’t be very nice for the gazelle, but what we can argue is that in infinite space, that doesn’t matter. That in the tiny fragment of reality that we experience through our material senses – our eyes that only see a limited range of light, our ears that only hear a limited range of vibration. The things that we experience here, we can’t make any absolute conclusions from them. No one knows if there is a God, or if there isn’t a God. No one knows which interpretation is closest.”

Unlike Fry who simply holds up the question of suffering as though it’s a complete rebuttal to the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, God, Brand sees that humans are partly culpable for whatever suffering happens in this world, and also partly the God-ordained solution (this is especially true if what’s suggested about Genesis, above, is correct). For Brand, suffering, too, is a reminder of our limitations, and a motivator for good. He’s able to see something like a divine purpose in the suffering, with this idea that it pushes us towards the divine. Even if, for him, the ‘divine’ is the consciousness that holds us all together.

“Yes there is suffering. What can we do about suffering? We can help one another. We can love one another. And if you can do that through atheism – then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary, that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater. Something complete and whole. Something timeless and spaceless and absolute. And every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand that. Art has been trying to represent it, science has been trying to explain it and no one can. We’re up against the parameters, and I believe without embracing something spiritual, something whole, something beyond human thought we have no chance of saving ourselves, and saving the planet, we are all connected to consciousness, we are all connected to one another, and to me that sounds a bit like God.”

If God is purely a transcendent being who doesn’t really interact with the world, and who leaves us waving our arms around blindly in the throes of our suffering, hoping that we’ll somehow accidentally bump into him, or each other, for the better — which is sort of Brand’s version of God — then I think Fry is actually closer to the money. This sort of God is a bit of a monster, human existence becomes something like a reality TV show that God watches, or controls, from the sidelines. God becomes this sort of Big Brother, muttering the occasional instruction, keeping the housemates in the dark about the reality of the universe.

But God doesn’t do this. He doesn’t stand apart from our pain. He enters it. First by becoming human – Jesus, God the Son, enters the world as a baby, a lowly baby, a part of a despised and persecuted people group, in an imperial backwater. Then by being executed. Painfully. Horribly. Unjustly. The injustice is magnified when you consider just who it is that is being executed and what he has given up in order to become human, let alone to suffer and die. John puts it like this:

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18

Jesus is nailed to two planks of wood. On a hill. In public display — for the purpose of seeing him utterly humiliated. The lowest of the low. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. For the sake of those who kill him, and those who given the chance, and given his claim to be ruler of our lives, would also want to kill him.

John describes the life of Jesus, and rejection of Jesus, in his opening:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”— John 1:9-11 

This is not a God who is distant and unknowable, who leaves us flailing around blindly in our pain. Who uses pain as some sort of subliminal way of getting our attention (though it might point us to the truth that something is very wrong with the world). Nor is it a maniacal self-serving God who demands we approach him on our knees and sends flesh-eating worms with no solutions. This is a God who is so committed to doing something about the pain and suffering in the world — pain and suffering that, if God is the God of the Bible, is a result of us rejecting him, that he came into the world to be rejected all over again, to take on pain and suffering, out of love.

What’s interesting, too, is that the kind of connection-via-consciousness that Brand so desperately wants as a link to the divine is something Jesus says is the result of his life, and death, for those who reconnect to the transcendent God, the source of life, through him.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one —  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:20-24

I like the version of God revealed in Jesus much better than Fry’s version of God, and more, even, than Brand’s version of God. I think Jesus gives us not just hope in suffering, or hope beyond suffering, but also a pattern for responding to the suffering of others that is much more satisfying the Fry’s directionless indignation (because, let’s face it, he’s angry at a God he doesn’t believe in who looks nothing like the God who reveals himself in Jesus), and much more focused than Brand’s unknowable God-beyond-our-senses.

If only I had a British accent.

What is clarity: a visualisation

I often think about what my job is, as a communicator. How I can best pass on my thoughts, or whatever data it is I’m looking to transmit to my audience in the way that is most helpful.

I think the absolutely holy grail of communication is clarity. Clarity is loving. Clarity, I think, is vital for persuasion. And I think all beneficial communication is persuasion — whether it simply seeks to educate, whether it seeks to reaffirm and encourage an already held position, or whether it seeks to shift and transform somebody via the act.

Good communication is about, as much as possible, getting everything else out of the way of the thing you are trying to communicate, but it’s also about making the thing you’re communicating about as full and real as possible.

Sometimes people think clarity is a synonym for simplicity. But it’s not.

Sometimes people think nuance is a synonym for ambiguity and an enemy of clarity. But it’s not.

Let me demonstrate in pictures.

This is a diamond.

Actually.

These are all diamonds.

Imagine someone asked you to show them a diamond. Perhaps, for context, you’re a jeweller and the someone is a young man wanting to buy a ring.

The first two examples are absolute communication failures. Uncut and ambiguous. Then there’s a simple diamond. A complex diamond. A nuanced diamond. And a compelling diamond.

uncut diamond

diamondambiguous

simple diamond

diamondlinecomplex

diamond

diamond in use

Which of these options are actually helpful to the person who wants to see a diamond, the sort of diamond they might take to their beloved?

It’s tempting to think that the best communication takes the easiest path for the audience to take to understand that this thing is a diamond — so the simple one that uses the least lines (let’s take for granted that communication is an act of making yourself understood and that it’s not good enough to just take the option that’s easiest for the communicator, serving up unedited, ambiguous, dross). That simple diamond doesn’t really help anyone except card players, magicians, or people playing Pictionary.

The last diamond is what we, as communicators, are attempting to communicate to our audience; the rest, though they’re sometimes held up as archetypes of clarity, are less than the best. Potentially there’s a context for a diamond like any of these other diamonds to be the thing that you are producing. Some of the others may be of value in a technical manual. But when I communicate I want people to appreciate the full significance — the intricacies of a thing and where it fits in the bigger picture, and how it might become part of the hearer’s life. I think that’s real clarity.

It’s true that you could stare at the last diamond for hours, and still appreciate it, but our guy in the jewellery shop who is very busy should get the picture that it’s a pretty incredible, and potentially life-changing diamond pretty quickly, because he’s not going to spend a lifetime in the shop. And I think that’s where the real challenge for clarity (and excellent communication) lies.